Reimer: In Yawkey Way debate, Boston's black community holds only voice that matters

Alex Reimer
August 18, 2017 - 1:36 pm

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Red Sox principal owner John Henry says he was rebuffed in his prior discussions about renaming Yawkey Way, because the previous mayoral administration didn’t want to open the “can of worms.” But now Henry has decided to take his case public, telling the Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman he’s “haunted” by Tom Yawkey’s racist past and wants to change the name of the street. 

In other words, the can of worms has been ripped wide open.

The timing of Henry’s declaration is opportune, and some would say, opportunist. His comments come at a time when cities across the country are debating whether to remove Confederate statues and monuments. Last weekend, white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville to protest the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue. A counter-protester was killed when a car drove into demonstrators.

Mayor Marty Walsh is currently unwilling to weigh in, telling reporters Friday it was “not the day” to talk about the short road that houses Fenway Park. But he’ll likely be forced to give his position soon, because the D’Angelo Family, the only other abutters on Yawkey Way, are on board with the name change. Since that’s the case, Henry could petition the City of Boston as soon as he wants. 

The Yawkey Foundation issued a statement late Thursday, saying it was “disheartened by any effort to embroil the Yawkeys in today's political controversy.” The charity, which was bequest in Yawkey’s will, has pledged more than $350 million in community grants since Henry purchased the Red Sox from the Yawkey Trust in 2002. Yawkey owned the team from 1933-1976, before handing it over to his wife, Jean, and the family’s trust. 

The foundation’s incredible philanthropic work is seen throughout Boston. It’s given nearly $55 million to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital, in addition to tens of millions more to universities and goodwill initiatives throughout metro Boston. 

But all of that commendable work doesn’t erase Yawkey’s history of virulent racism. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate under his ownership, not signing an African-American player until Pumpsie Green 1959. Before then, the club passed up opportunities to sign Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel notes, Yawkey was even considered regressive in his day. Boston politicians ordered him to host a tryout for African-American players in 1945, which is where the team declined to sign Robinson 

Over the incoming days, voices from all sides will likely offer their opinions on this contentious topic. But only a couple will matter, and with all due respect to Henry and the Yawkey Foundation, it isn’t theirs. 

Boston’s black community, which grapples with the city’s history of racism and bigotry on a daily basis, should have the final say. The Red Sox told in an email they’ve had an ongoing dialogue with NAACP Boston president Tanisha Sullivan and state senator Linda Dorcena Ferry about the issue. That’s good, considering the board of Fenway Sports Management is entirely white. 

It’s a silly for white people to sit there and tell black people what should and shouldn’t offend them. Perhaps the African-American community at large doesn’t care about Yawkey Way, just as the Washington Post found that nine out of 10 Native Americans aren’t offended by the Redskins name. Once that poll was released, it became difficult to argue on behalf of Native Americans.

Men like Tom Yawkey are responsible for holding back African Americans long after slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century. Though Yawkey Way is publicly funded, only a small percentage of Boston taxpayers still deal directly with the evils of racism. On this issue, it’s best to cede the ground to them. They decide when the so-called slippery slope ends. 

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