Boston Changes 'Yawkey Way' To 'Jersey Street' After Concerns Over Racist Legacy The Red Sox called for the change to distance themselves from former owner Tom Yawkey's era of racial discrimination. Others argue that he redeemed himself.

Boston Changes 'Yawkey Way' To 'Jersey Street' After Concerns Over Racist Legacy

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OK, this has happened to me. I'm driving around, and I turn onto a street with a name like - I don't know - Montague Street, and I wonder, who was that person? Well, in Boston, they know. Yawkey Way honors Tom Yawkey. He was the late owner of the Boston Red Sox, known for philanthropy and - this is the awkward part - also known for running a racist baseball team. Today a commission is voting on a request by the current owners to rename that street outside Fenway Park. Here's NPR's Tovia Smith.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The Red Sox say they're still haunted by Tom Yawkey's legacy. The team was the last to hire a black player - 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. The front office was notorious for racism, even spewing the N-word, and fans did too over the years, even last summer when the Orioles' Adam Jones played at Fenway.


ADAM JONES: I heard the N-word, and I just was like, OK, this is really - it's really how it's going to go down here.

SMITH: The current Sox owners lost no time kicking the guilty fan out of Fenway for life, saying they were sickened by his behavior. Shortly after, the Sox began their campaign to strip Yawkey's name from the street they call Fenway's front door.


DAVID FRIEDMAN: The undeniable and regrettable history of the Red Sox make it difficult to continue to give prominence to a symbol associated with an era marred by racial discrimination.

SMITH: Sox attorney David Friedman kicked off a recent hearing on the name change. Then, a former state official, Walter Carrington, called Yawkey Way Massachusetts' Confederate statue.


WALTER CARRINGTON: It is a disgrace. Every time I or any black go into Fenway Park, it's an insult.

SMITH: In 1959, Carrington investigated the Sox for discrimination and ultimately agreed with Jackie Robinson.


CARRINGTON: He believed that Tom Yawkey was the biggest bigot in professional baseball.

SMITH: But the bid to erase Yawkey's name has also rallied Yawkey fans like former Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg.


JIM LONBORG: I personally saw a change in Mr. Yawkey when I think he became a better man, and we were all better people because he was in our clubhouse.

SMITH: Many testified to the good done by Yawkey and his wife, Jean, through their foundation that's poured some $300 million into Boston.


JACK CONNORS: From the Jimmy Fund that saved generations of children with cancer...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: From hospitals and museums...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Supporters of the Urban League and have helped...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Countless of young people, regardless of their race....

SMITH: Boston businessman and philanthropist Jack Connors said the Red Sox are unfairly smearing the Yawkey name and heading down a slippery slope.


CONNORS: Whatever happened to common sense? Who's going to talk about Washington Street or Jefferson Way?

SMITH: But the debate is not just split along racial lines.

RAY HAMMOND: We got serious issues to deal with in Boston, and changing street signs isn't going to get us there.

SMITH: Reverend Ray Hammond is pastor at an historically black church in Boston and a Yawkey Foundation trustee. Unlike the Confederates, who don't deserve statues, he says, Yawkey's lesser sins, his growth and generosity should allow for his redemption.

HAMMOND: Let's understand all of our heroes probably have feet of clay, and let's learn from those feet of clay.

BYRON RUSHING: Redemption starts with someone saying, I'm sorry.

SMITH: But Yawkey never did, says state Representative Byron Rushing, so no amount of charity after his death can absolve him.

RUSHING: This is not an argument about the Yawkey Foundation. We're talking about person and not the foundation.

SMITH: It's why some have suggested a compromise to rename Yawkey Way, Yawkey Foundation Way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing) At the old ballgame.

Play ball.

SMITH: Outside Fenway during a ballpark tour, another idea from fans like Shawn Livermore from Alabama is to keep Yawkey Way, but also post a plaque with a fuller history.

SHAWN LIVERMORE: This knee-jerk reaction is just begging for history to repeat itself by not making all those moments teachable moments.

SMITH: Twenty-five-year-old Lauren McKone agrees Yawkey Way should stay.

LAUREN MCKONE: It's, like, tradition now, you know? You come to Yawkey Way, and you get your sausage on the street before the game, and it would be weird if it changed from Yawkey Way now.

SMITH: Especially weird, she says, if it reverted to its old name, Jersey Street. As many note, that was meant to honor the British isle of Jersey, where locals boosted their fortunes buying and selling slaves. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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