Renaming Yawkey Street next to Fenway Park as Jersey Street, its original name, should be a no-brainer. The reputation of the Boston Red Sox under the leadership of the late owner Tom Yawkey reinforced the sense of Boston as a racist city. In the 1940’s, City councilman Isadore Muchnick had to pressure the team to break the sport’s color line by making lighting for night games contingent on opening try-outs to black players. Tom Yawkey’s historic resistance to Negroes, including stars like Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe (who later became Rookie of the Year for the Boston Braves), was documented by Howard Bryant in his book Shut Out: a story of race and baseball in Boston. The Sox also turned their backs on Willy Mays and Hank Aaron. Boston was the last team to hire a black player, Pumpsie Green in 1959.
Boston is still trying to live down this reputation for racial intolerance. Some of this is a residue of the busing era in the seventies, inflamed by the Charles Stuart case in 1989, and sustained by institutional racism and systemic income and power inequities. The specter of overt racism reared its ugly head again last year when Sox fans used the N word to taunt Baltimore All-Star fielder Adam Jones as they threw peanuts at him. This time, the team took decisive action.
Things have improved under new ownership led by Boston Globe owner John Henry. Just look at the membership of the team and its community profile. John Henry himself wants to change the street name. He says he is haunted by the racist history of the Red Sox. Henry’s request for the name change is cast in terms of reinforcing the team’s commitment to inclusion. The city will have its say in the near future. (Henry doesn’t need the city’s permission to erase homage to Yawkey by removing the coded stencils of the name from the Green Monster in Fenway and Fenway South.)
Should the city say yea or nay to the name change? I say yea. But, as WCVB General Manager Bill Fine said in a recent station editorial, the issue is more complex than it looks. One lesson from efforts to tear down Confederate statues in the South is that trying to purge history of racists is an endless task. Universities are facing the challenge of deciding when to rename buildings. Where does it all end? Change everything that’s named Washington because the Father of our Country owned slaves or change the name of Brookline’s Devotion School, named after 18th century town benefactor and slaveholder Edward Devotion?
Besides, opined Fine, “systemic change is more effective than mere symbolism.” Civic leader and philanthropist Jack Connors agrees. He’s concerned that renaming Yawkey Way will undermine the Yawkeys’ larger legacy, the medical buildings and inner-city programs that the Yawkey Foundation has supported, to the tune of more than $400 million. Simply changing the name will not do much to change attitudes toward race and could drive away future donations.
Connors proposes the name remain but is asking the Yawkey Foundation, in return, to donate $10 million to non-profits working toward racial equality in Boston. He is looking to the Red Sox to ante up a similar amount. If other corporations kick in, as much as $25 million could buttress such initiatives. When Connors spoke out publicly opposing the name change, he was labeled a racist. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
He and Fine are right that substantive change is better than “mere symbolism.” But there’s a time for symbolism, especially when it is a first step. There is no need to change the Yawkey names on medical buildings. But Yawkey Way is a public street, not a private non-profit. The street is tied to the franchise where the discrimination took place. Changing the name is a clear (if symbolic) message that things have changed, that all are welcome.
Boston’s Public Improvement Commission will soon decide. I hope it dusts off the Jersey Street signs. Mayor Walsh should give full-throated support. Then the Yawkey Foundation, the Red Sox, other corporations along with other city agencies, should roll up their sleeves and tackle the problem of racism substantively to ensure Boston is a city that welcomes and provides equal opportunities to all its people.
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