First and Foremost

White's coalition wants to rename First Street to honor Martin Luther King.

With wrinkled fingers, Lillian Niederhofer diagrams the street, the history and the problem here. This semiretired real estate businesswoman with light gray hair and peach cheeks came to Conroe in 1949. "It was a very small lil' town," she explains in a soft Southern twang. "Old folks saying they didn't want anybody coming in and changing anything."

To call Conroe resistant to change is an understatement. Some 35 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King -- and a couple of decades after Houston and most of the rest of America renamed public places to honor him -- Conroe still can't reach a consensus on a tribute for the slain civil rights leader.

This spring, a coalition of African-American groups began a push, yet again, to change the name of First Street in Conroe to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. "Conroe needs a Martin Luther King street," says Carl White, a member of that coalition. "You know, it's not like we have a lot of foundations that will build a center for him."

Niederhofer says after she read about the plan in the local newspaper, she took out a pen and tablet and went the length of First Street, about four miles, rounding up signatures to oppose the measure. Niederhofer doesn't live on First Street, but she lives near it and she owned a mobile home park on First for several years. When she lays out her reasons for opposing the change, they seem both wistful and pragmatic. The number cruncher in her talks about "phenomenal costs" associated with changing mail service and street signs. The nostalgic 79-year-old sketches out, in vague terms, the pain of letting go of something so familiar. In that regard, Niederhofer represents the twofold opposition on First Street. She insists that King deserves a "greater honor" -- just some other street, park or building.

"Everybody opens up with the statement, 'I think Dr. King deserves a street up here named for him,'" says Conroe City Councilman Jay Ross Martin, who proposed the committee now looking at the issue. "And the underlying comment after that -- there's always a 'but' -- and after the 'but' comes 'But not my street, please.'"

If the black community seems antsy about achieving this goal, it might be because Conroe's been putting them on hold for 21 years. In 1982, a now-deceased black schoolteacher presented the city with a request that part of Avenue M be renamed Martin Luther King Drive. According to city records, Avenue M residents objected, beleaguered by three previous name changes to their street. The revised request shifted to First Street, a road "heavily used by the black people in that area," as noted in the city minutes. First Street residents balked, citing many of the same complaints being tossed around today. The mayor at that time asked a committee to look into an alternative, but the council took no action.

Seven years later, a now-deceased black pastor renewed the request to rename First Street for King. A second committee formed, more alternatives were discussed, and the effort again failed -- this time by a council vote.

In June of this year, the conflicting efforts of White and Niederhofer collided at a council meeting -- councilmembers described the issue as pretty evenly split between black supporters and First Street residents who opposed it. The Reverend J.D. Dixon, a black leader spearheading this incarnation of the initiative, called the city's proposal for a new committee "useless," an unnecessary delay because the council would make the ultimate decision.

Nonetheless, each of the five council members picked a citizen to be on the committee. Dixon, White and another black supporter got tapped, as did two whites -- a resident and a business owner on the street. Mayor Carter Moore attached himself to the panel, apparently to ensure the group worked through to a consensus. However, the second meeting of the panel ended in a fiery stalemate, with Moore walking out, White suspicious of racist undertones, and a white member saying he was aggravated by an "accusatory" atmosphere.

"The committee right now is a failure," says White, who thinks it was destined to fail from the start. "We got to go back to the table and see what we can come up with. There's no reason that my children have to fight this same issue -- a street name."

Blacks make up about 11 percent of the 36,000 residents of Conroe, about 40 miles north of Houston. Montgomery County is no stranger to past racism and even Ku Klux Klan activity (see "Fueling the Ire," by Craig Malisow, November 14, 2002). Yet many of the blacks interviewed say the street name flap is not indicative of prejudice. White himself says everyone gets along pretty well, so he finds the opposition to the King renaming all the more bizarre.

Supporters see First Street as the logical heir to King's name. It's one of the few streets that runs continuously north to south, slicing through Conroe's cobbled grid and crossing Texas 105, a main artery. They point out that the black Booker T. Washington Junior High School was located on First many years ago. Most important for them, First Street has a true mix of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians lining the strip. Thus the street itself is a vision of King's dream come true, even if the residents seem dead-set against expressly labeling it as such.

To cruise down the woodsy thoroughfare, equal parts residential and commercial, and inquire about the name change nets a variety of complaints lodged by a diverse group of people.

"It would be a huge pain for us. It would cost a lot of money to change our letterhead, envelopes and everything," says Melissa Garza, a manager at Gray's Insurance Agency. "It would be a terrible thing to do." Dr. Glenn W. Rice plays down any financial burden of name change, but the 78-year-old chiropractor sounds off when it comes to preserving legacy. "It would be wrong for anybody that lives on this street to give it away to somebody who didn't live here, no discredit to Dr. King. We'd like to keep Conroe like it was in the original," he says. "I feel it's my responsibility to protect the heritage."

Helen Simpson, who has lived at the very end of South First for nearly 30 years, sets her jaw firm when the subject comes up. "They've really stirred up a stink over this," she says. Gerald Ahrens, another resident, believes it would be wrong in this time of tight municipal budgets to spend funds to change the street signs (White says the city quoted a cost of about $4,000 to redo those signs.) When approached by several black women with a petition to change the name, Charan Rall, an Indian-born convenience store owner, says he demanded $2,000 -- the amount he claims is needed to change the address on his bills and notify delivery drivers.

Some African-American residents of First applaud the proposal. "It's time for them to do something," says Richard Matlock. About the resistance, he says, "I don't think it has racial issues, but I'd want to know why they're holding back." Lakasha Lacy, who runs a personal care home for the elderly with her mother, scoffs at opponents' claims that the change would result in confusion or inconvenience.

The coalition offered up the possibility of a dual street name: keeping First Street as well as adding Martin Luther King Boulevard. The county's emergency board, however, feared that a dual name would confuse 9-1-1 calls. And Billy Henry, the only black on the six-member city council, opposed the idea, reportedly remarking, "There's not two people in Dr. King's grave."

For three decades, cities and towns across America have, with varying degrees of ease, written King's name into the urban landscape. Some of the same controversies that show up in Conroe have appeared over the years in far-flung locales like San Diego, Charleston and Hackensack. Houston birthed its own MLK Boulevard in 1978.

Despite the discord in Conroe, some members of the committee whisper that a new compromise may be put on the table -- perhaps a different street or possibly a park. They decline to offer specifics, however, saying they want affected residents to be told first.

"We're not quite as cosmopolitan as people in Houston and Austin and anywhere else, but we're also grown adults," says Councilman Martin. He believes Conroe is capable of showing the state that "we're not the same little sleepy redneck town -- that we can handle these issues and they're tough, but we're up to the task and we'll come up with something that everybody will like." Then he adds, "And I may eat those words."

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