Dreaming on Martin Luther King Avenue in Oklahoma City
There are some empty storefronts and an overgrown vacant lot on Oklahoma City's Martin Luther King Avenue, but I also saw pockets of thriving local businesses where people greet each other by name and gather to talk about the neighborhood.
Walking a two-mile stretch of the Avenue on a chilly January day, I spoke with students at Frederick A. Douglass Mid-High who told me of their pride in the school and how people from the area, whose parents and grandparents also attended Douglass, still come to the football games.
I talked to business owners who believe in the potential of their street and the people who live and work on it. More than 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., I found many dreams on Oklahoma City's Martin Luther King Avenue.
Jeff Richards, owner of Geronimo's Bakery at NE 18 and Martin Luther King, serves doughnuts the size of dinner plates and cheeseburgers many proclaim to be the best in the city. His parents started the business in 1972 and he says he loves the street.
"I want things to stay the same and improve here at the same time," Richards said. "This northeast community keeps me going. I have regulars that come in and we talk sports, politics, everything."
The last oil and gas boom that brought new housing development, trendy shops and high-end restaurants to many of Oklahoma City's other older neighborhoods has so far passed over Martin Luther King Avenue, but many dream of changing that.
"A lot of the businesses have closed — I guess not moved away, but simply shut down," said R.L. Doyle, who has been involved in organizing the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday parade since 1980. "It's an old neighborhood and it's the economics of people moving away."
Oklahoma City's Martin Luther King Avenue is a six-mile stretch of Eastern Avenue that was renamed in honor of the slain civil rights leader in 1985. The name change was a hard-won victory for Oklahoma City's black community. Some residents and businesses fought against the renaming effort. A 1984 article from The Oklahoman on the name change described the issue as having "split the community apart."
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The Oklahoma City Council approved the name change by a one-vote margin.
Doyle was also involved in the push to rename the street.
"It was a challenge, but we got it done," Doyle said. "There were a lot of people not too excited about changing their mailing address, or that's what they said anyway."
John Pettis, Ward 7 city councilman, believes Martin Luther King Avenue has the potential to become a thriving commercial center for the Northeast side.
"I am looking forward to a day when I can say we have the nicest Martin Luther King Avenue in the nation," Pettis said.
Dreams take time
Oklahoma City formed the Northeast Renaissance TIF (tax increment financing) district in January 2015 to incentivize new development on Martin Luther King Avenue and the Northeast side. The economy and continued misperceptions about high crime in the neighborhood have slowed the process of redevelopment. King's Crossing, a $30 million shopping center planned for NE 23 and Martin Luther King Avenue was announced three years ago, but construction has yet to begin.
All change — all dreams — take time, Pettis said.
"You have to understand, the TIF district was only created in 2015, and since then, we've had some major success, but it's been a slow process," Pettis said. "Any time you are talking about redevelopment, it takes time."
I was sad to find cracks in the masonry and the walls in danger of toppling over at the Freedom Center, NE 26 and Martin Luther King. It's a place where so many came to dream.
The small brick building next to a barbershop is Oklahoma City's only civil rights monument.
The center was founded by the late Oklahoma City civil rights activist Clara Luper. The building was the headquarters of the local chapter of the NAACP Youth Council, which organized the August 1958 sit-in at Katz Drugstore in downtown Oklahoma City. The sit-in is recognized today as the beginning of the civil rights movement in Oklahoma City. It's also the place where people gathered to mourn on April 4, 1968, when word spread of King's assassination in Memphis.
A fire burned the original Freedom Center building in September 1968. Arson was suspected in the blaze, according to newspaper accounts from the time. I was not able to find any records that anyone had ever been arrested or charged in connection with the fire.
After the fire, Lana Pogue, president of the Youth Council recalled in 1969 how local youth had worked to raise money to build the center.
"We worked in the sun, sold pencils and pens to make it something," Pogue said. "I think it burned something inside us all."
Today, plaques commemorating important moments in the civil rights movement are falling off the exterior of the building and several are missing. But a pyramid-shaped stone monument to black history that Luper helped build in front of the building in 1992 has held up pretty well.
Just down the street from the Freedom Center, I found Carican Flavors, Oklahoma City's only Caribbean restaurant.
Proprietor Sharon McMillan and husband Michael left their professional jobs to realize their dream of opening a restaurant on Martin Luther King Avenue 11 years ago.
Today, Carican Flavors draws customers from across the city for its homestyle jerk chicken and curried goat.
"It's been very good for us to be here," McMillian said. "We chose this area because we felt like there was a need on this side of town."
At Frederick A. Douglass Mid-High, I talked to high schools kids about their dreams.
Jessie Wilson, a senior at Douglass, hopes to help Douglass win a state basketball championship this year.
Wilson said he loves his school's history as Oklahoma City's first black high school.
"We learn a lot about black history, how we can take what happened back in the day, learn from it and how we can make a better environment, make our school better," he said.
Monique Bennett, also a senior, wants to study to become a physical therapist after graduation. She told me her dream is to return to the neighborhood after college — but only after studying abroad.
"I want to come back and help, because a lot of people don't," she said. "I want to make the neighborhood better."