Metro

Adrian Walker

Why renaming Yawkey Way matters

A Yawkey Way street sign.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
A Yawkey Way street sign.

The Rev. Ray Hammond has helped lead the charge against renaming Yawkey Way.

A board member — and indirect beneficiary — of the Yawkey Foundation, he believes longtime Red Sox owner Thomas Yawkey has been unfairly maligned in the push to rename the street on which Fenway Park sits.

Yawkey, Hammond argues, may not have been an especially enlightened owner. But he wasn’t a bigot.

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“No, he was not a pioneer,” Hammond conceded. “He did not storm the ramparts for racial equality. But he was not George Wallace or David Duke, either.”

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The Red Sox have asked the city to rename Yawkey Way, a decision currently pending before the Public Improvement Commission. Principal owner John W. Henry (also the owner and publisher of the Globe) has said that he is “haunted” by the team’s racial history, which includes being the last in Major League Baseball to integrate.

Hammond testified before the commission and has made media appearances on behalf of Yawkey’s good name as well. As one of the city’s leading African-American pastors, Hammond makes an excellent character witness on the issue of race.

Unfortunately for Hammond — whom I’ve known and admired for many years — he doesn’t have a lot to work with. He says that Yawkey tried, without much success, to integrate the team. He says that Earl Wilson might have been on the Red Sox before they integrated in 1959, had he not been drafted into military service. Hammond told me that Yawkey understood that Boston would not be an easy city for the first black member of the Sox.

To my mind, the Sox didn’t try all that hard to integrate. They are the team that passed on both Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays — Robinson having been subjected to a racial epithet that may have been uttered by Yawkey during his infamous 1945 tryout.

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As for the city being so tough, the Boston Braves brought the first black Major Leaguer to Boston in 1950 — Sam “The Jet” Jethroe, who became the National League Rookie of the Year. (The Boston Braves also signed Hank Aaron, though they moved to Milwaukee before he made it to the majors.)

But Hammond makes one argument that is especially important. Instead of the symbolic gesture of renaming a street, he says, the foundation and the Red Sox should be working together to address the city’s serious issues of racial inequality.

He pointed to a recent Globe series on race in Boston and a Federal Reserve Report detailing the stunning wealth gap between black and white families in the area.

“We should be working on diversity at the leadership level,” Hammond told me. “We should be working together on the achievement gap. I worry that we’re going to miss another opportunity to address substance.”

Because the argument in defense of Yawkey is so thin, supporters have taken to arguing that renaming Yawkey Way is just so much symbolism, a distraction from the serious stuff people should care about.

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It’s undeniable that the Yawkeys have a serious philanthropic legacy in this town. (As the Globe has previously reported, no small amount of that largesse has gone to six charities controlled by Hammond.)

But naming a city street after such a retrograde on race sends a message, and a message like that matters. It serves to reinforce this city’s terrible, and largely deserved, reputation for not caring about a history of bigotry.

If Yawkey Way is renamed, as I believe it will be, the philanthropic legacy of the Yawkey family will continue to be celebrated all over town, through the institutions it has funded. I’m fine with that. Private institutions can call themselves whatever they want.

But Boston has a chance to say it is ready to shed its reputation as one of America’s most racist cities. That is a statement we should be eager, not reluctant, to make.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.