A city commission postponed a vote Thursday on the controversial question of whether to rename Yawkey Way after a spirited, two-hour hearing that grappled with the city’s complicated racial past and present.
Long-time powerbrokers such as philanthropist Jack Connors and former Red Sox CEO John Harrington turned emotional as they highlighted the work of the late Tom Yawkey, the former Red Sox owner who left hundreds of millions to charity. Leaders of the city’s black community, such as state Representative Byron Rushing and Tanisha Sullivan, president of the city’s NAACP, pointed out Yawkey’s reputed bigotry.
And still others who weighed in on the controversial petition to rename the two-block strip by Fenway Park called for a more cordial resolution — a way to celebrate Yawkey’s charities while recognizing the Red Sox’ history of discrimination. Perhaps donating his foundation’s money to urban baseball programs? Or erecting the team’s first statue of a black player?
“If you were to change the name of a street based on what happened 50 years ago, you’d have to change the name of virtually every street in the city of Boston,” said Keith McDermott, the former longtime head of the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, who said Boston’s leaders should focus more on closing the economic gap between Boston’s white and black communities.
“Is the name change of a street going to change a wealth gap?” McDermott asked.
So goes the challenges before the Boston Public Improvement Commission, a city board that monitors the use of public ways and is charged with deciding on the petition to change a street name. The street’s abutters support the renaming of Yawkey Way, and yet commissioners acknowledge they are deciding something far more significant.
The commission agreed Thursday to delay a vote until April 12, giving members and the public another two weeks to digest a question that, all agreed, involves more than a street name change.
“This quite clearly is a different petition, and a different conversation,” said Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, transportation, and sewer, and the chair of the commission, who pointed out street name petitions are typically unanimously supported, and attract little public interest.
The commission, made up of city department heads appointed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, has handled only six such petitions since 2011. Walsh has not publicly taken a position on the issue.
Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who also owns The Boston Globe,
sought the name change in February, citing Yawkey’s and the Red Sox’ reputation for discrimination.
The team’s legal counsel, David S. Friedman, told commissioners Thursday that the organization sees the street name as a sign of “an era marked by racial discrimination,” posted “on the front door of our baseball stadium.”
“We see it as a way to clarify our vision for the future,” he said.
Yawkey, for whom the street was named in 1977, owned the team from 1933 until his death in 1976. During his tenure, the Red Sox were the last Major League Baseball club to integrate, finally calling up their first black player, infielder Pumpsie Green, in 1959. That was 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Walter C. Carrington, a former ambassador to Nigeria and Senegal, who investigated the Red Sox as a member of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in 1959, said he found a pattern of bigotry under Yawkey’s leadership. He said Robinson once told him directly that “Tom Yawkey was the biggest bigot in professional baseball.”
Sullivan, of the NAACP, said Boston’s race relations have improved in the years since Yawkey, and she called on the commission to seize on that progress and erase his name from a public street.
“We are not the same Boston,” she said. “Today our government, through you . . . has the chance to demonstrate that.”
But supporters of Yawkey, and specifically the family’s foundations, argued that the change will forever tarnish the Yawkey name and be inseparable from his charity work. They say Tom Yawkey changed his ways, moved past a time that bigotry was pervasive across baseball and the country, and that he should be remembered for the totality of his work.
The list of speakers included the board members of several organizations who received funding from the Yawkey Foundations; the nonprofit director who worked with his wife, Jean, who said her name will also be unfairly tarnished; and a college junior who benefited from the Yawkey Scholars Program.
“We have some very serious work to do in race relations,” said Connors, the well-known philanthropist, though he added, “The way to solve or address the problem is not to change the name of this street and another street and another street, it is to bring these great resources together. The Boston Red Sox, and the Yawkey Foundation . . . let’s bring these parties together.”