Portland city councilors may rename Franklin Street in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

The idea of honoring the slain civil rights leader will be formally considered by councilors next week and has been discussed by city leaders and community members for years, said City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau. There are no public memorials to King in Maine’s largest city, and renaming one of Portland’s busiest streets and a gateway for visitors would be a fitting tribute to King’s work and legacy, Thibodeau said.

“I think what we are trying to convey is that this is not something to be tucked away in a side street. This is important to us as a city,” Thibodeau said. “I think it sends a pretty remarkable message, not just to the state, but to the tremendous number of visitors that come to our city.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The City Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee will discuss changing the name of the traffic arterial to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at its meeting Tuesday. The meeting will be followed by a Feb. 15 public hearing in council chambers at City Hall. Thibodeau did not know how much it would cost the city to rename the street, but said it would likely be discussed at the meeting next week.

Councilor Jill Duson, who has worked on efforts to memorialize King in the city and also sits on the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, said she looks forward to discussing the proposal with members of the community.

“I’m excited to see there is momentum around honoring Martin Luther King Jr. here in Portland in this way,” Duson said in a written statement.

ORIGINS OF STREET NAME ARE UNCLEAR

The four-lane street is divided by a large grass median and runs north-south across the Portland peninsula between Interstate 295 and Commercial Street. Each day, about 28,000 vehicles use the road just to the south of Interstate 295, according to city figures.

The details of how and when Franklin Street got its name are unclear.

The thoroughfare’s current name stems from the 1850s, after it was lengthened to connect Back Cove to the newly completed Commercial Street and Franklin Wharf, which was located in the area now occupied by the Maine State Pier. A city spokeswoman said the street appears to be named after the wharf, but it’s not clear whom the wharf is named after.

beforeafter

Two views of Franklin Street at the corner of Cumberland Avenue, looking northwest toward Back Cove.

1963 photo: uncredited, from the Portland Press Herald print archives; 2013 photo: John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

The history of Franklin Street makes it an interesting choice.

Franklin Street Wharf is noted as a place where stowaway slaves arrived in Portland aboard ships from the South, and where they boarded ships headed to Canada and England. It is a stop on the Portland Freedom Trail and is marked by a plaque mounted near the Commercial Street end of Franklin Street that reads:

“Landing spot for many passengers on the Underground Railroad and embarkation point for their transit to Canada and England. Anti-slavery sympathizers were well-organized to greet stowaways from Southern cargo vessels, find them safe housing in Portland, supply clothing and passes, and send them on to Canada. The wharves and ships of Portland employed large numbers of African-Americans, providing well-paying jobs, thus adding to community stability.”

SUPPORT ALREADY BUILDING FOR NAME CHANGE

More recently, a notorious urban renewal project in the 1960s demolished entire neighborhoods and uprooted mostly immigrant families to expand Franklin Street and create a major thoroughfare into the city. The road disconnected the working-class and ethnic India Street neighborhood from the rest of the city.

In the past decade, Portland has tried to reverse the effects of that project by redesigning Franklin Street. The most recent proposal, unveiled in 2014, would remove the wide median and shrink travel lanes, opening up space on both sides of the road for redevelopment and improving pedestrian crossings and sidewalks. In 2015, the City Council approved a $34.5 million redevelopment master plan for the street.

The renaming proposal has received support from the Portland NAACP and Mayor Ethan Strimling.

“The Portland Branch of the NAACP has had an interest in recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for some time and we’re thrilled that we are now at a place in which we can honor this great American hero of African-American descent in a permanent way here in Portland,” said Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, president of the local group.

“When we find ways to honor Dr. King’s legacy, we remind everyone of his message of hope, justice and courage, a message we’d do well to live out every day,” Strimling said in a written statement.