“Change a street name and you change the way people think about their city. It is where ideology meets asphalt,” Phillip Gibbs said. “Now I know we will have push back on this. Some people just do not like change. But what you got to understand is that we need change in Waynesville.”
Gibbs shared the idea at a Waynesville town board meeting last week accompanied by a dozen supporters in the audience, both black and white.
But a few opponents of the name change were there, too.
“We have always welcomed our African American people. I have lived there all my life and we’ve never had a problem, but we are having a problem now,” said Myrtle Fitzgerald Noland, a white member from the audience and a lifelong resident of Pigeon Street. “If things are not broke don’t fix it, and things aren’t broke out that way.”
Mayor Gavin Brown, who normally encourages impromptu public participation at town meetings, initially called on audience members wanting to weigh in. But each time someone from the audience spoke, someone on the other side of the issue raised their hand wanting time to rebut it.
As the discussion grew more agitated, Brown suspended the back-and-forth and asked the audience to save their opinions until a more formal public debate could be scheduled.
As residents of Waynesville’s African American community filed out of the meeting, an altercation broke out in the back of the room.
It’s unclear who said what first, but a white man in the audience who’d also risen to leave began shouting at a black man walking past him.
“This is my town, this is my town, too,” shouted Michael Noland, a white man in the audience.
Jody Lee, a black man who’d been muttering something as he walked by, wheeled toward Noland. Tempers visibly rose in both men as they faced each other, and more words began to fly but were cut short by the booming voice of Mayor Gavin Brown coming from the front of the room.
“No sir, I won’t have that in my meeting!” Brown bellowed, jumping from his chair and leaping out from behind the aldermen’s dais. “I won’t have that! No sir!”
Town Public Services Director David Foster, who was seated in the audience, had leapt up as well and reached the two men before Brown could. Foster took Noland by the shoulders, moved him to the front of the room and sat him down in a chair. Meanwhile, Lee’s friends had surrounded him and moved him on out the door.
By now, a town police officer who was on the far side of the room, had made his way to the center of the commotion and escorted the group of African American residents into the lobby.
Within a few minutes, Noland emerged from the meeting room into the lobby where the white and black audience members at odds just a few moments earlier were now mingling and making small talk. Even Noland and Lee ended up loitering and chatting with each other for several minutes before calling it a night.
Before discussion was cut-off, both sides in the debate voiced their support or opposition for renaming Pigeon Street.
The white residents of Pigeon Street said it would be a blow to heritage to rob the community of its historical street name.
“Pigeon Street to me has been known as Pigeon Street ever since I can remember and I can remember way back,” said Myrtle Fitzgerald Noland, 79.
While street names indeed commemorate a community’s identity, the identity it reflects can be one-sided.
Given the vice-grip of white supremacy in the South historically, streets names are steeped in white heritage. They are named for white civic leaders, white families, white founders and white politicians.
But influential African Americans were rarely if ever commemorated in street names.
The renaming of streets for Martin Luther King aims to correct that imbalance. Gibbs said African Americans in Waynesville aren’t represented in the “public space,” and that signals exclusion.
“If the community is not willing to do something as simple as renaming a street, what does it say about the willingness to deal with the larger issue? It would help diversify us,” Gibbs said.
Mack Noland, an audience member opposed to the name change, instead suggested renaming a neighborhood street in the historically black community.
“This action is pretty much just from the black community. I think Hillside would be a much better street for a designation,” Noland said, citing the street long known as the center of Waynesville’s historic black neighborhood.
That’s part of the problem, as Walter Bryson sees it.
“The only thing Waynesville has wanted us to do as African Americans is stay in our community and not go anywhere,” said Bryson, an African American resident. “What is it anyone would have against a street being named after Martin Luther King?”
While renaming a street in honor of Martin Luther King is a common trend in larger Southern cities, MLK boulevards are a rarity in the Appalachians. Asheville is home to the only MLK street name in Western North Carolina.
The black population is so minute in small mountain towns, they lack the political voice or clout to effect a street name change. In Haywood County — which is more than 92 percent white — only 1.2 percent of the population is black, according to census data. Opponents questioned why it was warranted or justified given the small population of African Americans.
“There is not a black that lives on Pigeon Street,” Fitzgerald said.
Gibbs pointed out that Pigeon Street is the primary thoroughfare running past the historically black community, however, and is home to a former African American school and Waynesville’s largest black church.
Fitzgerald brought up the personal headache residents of Pigeon Street would have to go through if the street name was changed.
“It is quite an ordeal when you start changing addresses, driver licenses, Social Security cards, all that stuff,” said Fitzgerald. “I am too old to fool with this stuff but I am going to fool with it because I am going to stand for my rights, too.”
Gibbs countered that the same arguments have played out in other cities where a street has been renamed for Martin Luther King.
“You are going to have some people say that this change would cause too many problems, that property values will go down, or some reason they don’t want to,” Gibbs said. “I know it will be problem for changing the addresses and the 911 calls and that kind of thing. But this is not the first time this has happened nor will it be the last. Overtime, things smooth out.”
Brown asked Gibbs whether other streets beside Pigeon had been considered.
“Other people have asked me that question and I said ‘You give me a street you think is better suited’ and nobody came up with anything,” Gibbs said.
Myrtle Fitzgerald said how about changing the name of Main Street or Hazelwood Avenue instead.
“I would like to honor George Washington but they won’t change Waynesville to do that for me,” she said.
Town Manager Marcy Onieal said the discussion would obviously need to bring in more stakeholders than just the town board.
“This is not the only place the conversation needs to be had,” Onieal said. “Mr. Gibbs came here first because the town would obviously have to be one of the key players in getting the conversation started.”
“I hope we don’t just start it but eventually I think it would be good for Waynesville,” Gibbs said. “I am certain when Martin Luther King started on his journey his odds were much greater.”
Town Planner Elizabeth Teague volunteered to do the legwork of researching what a street name change entails and what the formal process is.
“I would love an opportunity to study this and contact DOT and perhaps the other groups you have been talking about and come back with a full report,” Teague said.