Bennie Edwards sits in the upper conference room of the Penta Building with windows facing Calhoun Street. The symbolism of his current task is evident–renaming a Fort Wayne street dedicated to a southern slave-owning vice president to famed civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Edwards, president of the Fort Wayne MLK Club, realizes it will be an uphill battle. He’s been down this road before, six years ago when he and a group of like-minded individuals wanted to rename Clinton Street after MLK. The idea was met with opposition by city officials. It ended when the city named the bridge over the Maumee along U.S. 27/Clinton Street after King.
“A bridge for a bridge maker,” said King’s nephew, Derek, at the bridge's christening in 2012.
But is that enough?
Edwards believes it’s a travesty that Fort Wayne is a major city with a large Black population that does not have a street named in King's honor. Furthermore, he and the MLK members say it’s fitting, given its significance and present context, to rename this particular thoroughfare, one of the city’s oldest, after King. Calhoun runs from Tillman Park on Fort Wayne’s south side, through some of the most ethnically diverse sections of the city, to downtown where it ends at Headwaters Park and a short walk to the MLK bridge.
Calhoun is also a mythical barrier between the eastern and western sections of the south side.
“I lived here and didn’t know the history of John C. Calhoun,” Edwards says, citing a Fox 55 TV report by Brianna Dahlquist earlier this summer during the Black Lives Matters protests that detailed both Calhoun’s pro-slavery views and people’s views on the name.
“Calhoun is one of the city’s most important streets,” Edwards says. “We need to change the name for the ‘positive good’ of the community.”
In the MLK Club's September newsletter, Chris Elliot, a club member and history teacher at Bishop Luers High School, penned an essay about the “positive good” of renaming the street. He flipped the script on one of Calhoun’s concepts that slavery itself was a positive good for both slave and slave owner. Elliot ends the essay by referencing South Carolina’s removal of Calhoun’s name from Clemson University’s honors college.
“Now that civic leaders in his former home state of South Carolina have seen fit to discontinue honoring a racist, slave-owning politician, Fort Wayne should follow their lead,” Elliot writes. “Let’s encourage city officials to summon the dignity and courage to honor an individual that doesn’t represent a past filled with hatred.”
Edwards is now looking to gather support among both Black and white citizens to push what he knows is an arduous task that he expects will face both quiet opposition and full-throated outrage.
City policy does allow for the renaming of an existing street–but it’s not easy. A resident or residents must submit a written request to the mayor’s office providing reasons for the name change. The request must include a petition in favor of the name change signed by at least 60 percent of the property owners along the street who would be affected. (Consider the logistics of changing everything from business cards to advertising.)
The request then moves to the city’s plan commission for consideration. If approved by the commission, the request goes to the mayor’s office for consideration and possible approval.
Again, sitting in the conference room, listening to Edwards’s life and family story is one that Calhoun could not have envisioned 195 years ago as the seventh Vice President of the United States. Yet Edwards's familial success is the kind dreamed of by Martin Luther King Jr. in the days before the March on Washington.
The son of an Alabama sharecropper, Edwards moved to Fort Wayne at 12 and graduated from Central High School.
One of the first things you notice about him is his bearing: sharp and confident with an authoritative voice. He was, after all, a sergeant major and drill instructor in the Army Reserves, leaving after a distinguished 26-year career.
Before the Army, Edwards served four years in the U.S. Navy as an anti-submarine warfare specialist on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, 30 miles from the coast of Vietnam. He also spent 30 years as a Fort Wayne Police Reserve officer and 37 years working for B.F. Goodrich.
“I’ve spent my life working more than one job,” he says, sporting a wry smile.
His wife was also a sergeant major, a rare rank for a Black woman even now. The couple raised two children: a son, who is a New Orleans-based Boeing engineer helping to lead America to Mars; and a daughter, who is a child psychologist in St. Louis.
Edwards and his family are exceptional in achievement, but not the exception. Indeed, Southeast Fort Wayne and Allen County are filled with great stories of successful Black men and women who have strived and achieved.
But the constant symbol of an oppressive past masked as monuments to men like Calhoun does little to dissuade Black people from believing they are second-class citizens in their own country. Nor does a lack of action deter people from trying to scrub the meaning from these symbols.
This story was originally written for Fort Wayne Ink Spot.