By Nathan Ham
A crowd gathered inside Boone Fire Station #2 to honor the recent renaming of part of Hunting Hills Lane to Martin Luther King Jr. Street. The street is located off of State Farm Road where the new recreation center complex is being constructed.
For many in attendance, this was so much more than just changing the name of a street to honor one of the most compassionate and loving individuals of the 20th century. It was more about being proud that Boone, the community that many of these people have been a part of for decades, has listened to the African American community and given them something else to be proud of.
“I find myself to be nervous today because this is a day, in my dreams growing up in Avery County, I never dreamed that this would come to pass. But God knows better than I do, the hearts of his people,” said Rev. Mike Mathes, the pastor at Boone Mennonite Brethren Church. “On this day, we come to honor the life and the works of a great man, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We are proud and we are honored, we are humbled that a man of color would bestow such a high honor here in the High Country of Western North Carolina.”
Rev. Mathes said himself that this became more than just about naming a street.
“As many of my young members at the church saw the comments and the controversies surrounding just naming this stretch of road, to them it was surprisingly hurtful. But to some of us that have lived through so many different changes, those that are my age, it seemed not to be surprising,” Rev. Mathes said. “But we are grateful. We are grateful for our friends and those that unwaveringly supported our city officials and we are proud to see that hate has no place in Boone.”
Church member Juanita Hay recalled back around five years ago when the proposal was first made to name a street in Boone after Dr. King and as she put it, the idea was “dead on arrival.”
Hay said it wasn’t until she had a chance meeting with current Boone Town Councilman Sam Furgiuele at a luncheon that the ball really started rolling on getting a Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Boone. The original location was suggested to be New Market Boulevard, however, there was pushback from business owners on that road that stated the costs to change their addresses would hurt their financial standing. After that, other locations included Old East King Street, Howard Street, State Farm Road and Meadowview Drive.
It wasn’t until August that the council unanimously approved changing part of Hunting Hills Lane to Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Even then, there were residents on the road that opposed the change and went so far as to petition against the change. The council compromised and chose to keep the Hunting Hills Lane name for the residential housing areas. Martin Luther King Jr. Street will be the permanent address for the new recreation center and Clawson-Burnley Park.
“It gives me great delight to stand before you today, not only to commemorate and pay tribute to Dr. King’s memory but to be a part of a celebration here in Boone dedicating a street in his honor. All over the nation, there are schools, museums, parks, streets, buildings, parades, movies and so on named for Dr. King, a man of unshakeable faith. This is a big deal,” said Hay. “I was surprised at some of the disparaging comments made in person and online, but it did not discourage me. We faced some of the same opposition and concerns that every town and city in America has experienced. I am happy today, I believe Boone has taken a step in the right direction, showing that Boone is and can be as diverse as any other place.
Dr. Fred J. Hay, who was on the Boone Town Council when the proposal to rename a street in honor of Dr. King was first turned down, detailed how the proposal unfolded and quickly put on the back burner.
“Several years ago when I served on the town council, I made a motion to name a street in honor of King. It was referred to committee where the initiative died. The committee reported that there was no town street that could possibly be renamed and instead proposed making a walkway on Howard Street named for King. The non-availability of a street was ludicrous, asinine of those ashamed and afraid of others that think they might live in an African American neighborhood. The Howard Street proposal was demeaning, furthermore, it was never constructed,” said Dr. Hay.
Dr. Hay added that he was happy to see the current town council push through the resistance and get the street name changed.
“This is not just a symbolic gesture. In a time experiencing the widespread resurgence of an increasingly acceptable regime of hate speech and violent white nationalism, this action will be a bold statement that Boone is the progressive place that we advertise it to be. It says that Boone does not endure nor tolerate these vile expressions of hate,” he said.
Appalachian State University Student Body President DeJon Milbourne spoke briefly and remembered when he first arrived in Boone in 2016.
“I am a graduating senior. I have been here since 2016. It was scary coming up to Boone from Fayetteville as an African American male, but I can say that I feel a community here that I did not expect, that I am very welcomed to coming back to when I graduate. So it’s very special that this town is doing this,” said Milbourne. “It brings me great joy as a black man that the town has chosen to dedicate this space for Martin Luther King Jr., one of our nation’s great leaders, a man who did massive work to shape the society and world in which we live in today, a man that worked very hard to make sure that someone like myself and many others like me can have opportunities at a decent life in a society that hated them a little less. It brings me even greater joy that the town has done this because it is responding to something that residents have called for. That is advocacy and that is how our political system is supposed to work.”
Town Manager John Ward wrapped up the ceremony and said he was honored and proud to be part of this project and part of something else positive happening in Boone.
“A few minutes ago our newest Boone intern with the police department asked me how I like my job. I said I like it pretty well because I get to do stuff like this,” said Ward. “I think about how we have the largest investment in the county recreation center going across the way, we have one of our highest visited parks, the Boone Greenway and Clawson-Burnley Park, and now when we tell people where to go, we’ll tell them that they’re on Martin Luther King Jr. Street.”