Reimer: Yawkey Way name change refreshing acknowledgement of Red Sox' racist past

Alex Reimer
April 26, 2018 - 2:19 pm

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Yawkey Foundation says changing the name of Yawkey Way tarnishes the philanthropic legacy of Tom Yawkey. But it has nothing to do with that. Instead, the move to restore Yawkey Way to Jersey Street is about the Red Sox' self-reflection of their racist past. It's a refreshing olive branch extended to those who have experienced discrimination first-hand. 

The Boston Public Improvement Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve the name change. The Red Sox’ representative declined to speak before the vote was announced. The Yawkey Foundation didn’t send a spokesman to the brief proceedings held in Room 801 at City Hall, which seemingly lasted five minutes. 

In a statement, the Yawkey Foundation blasted the vote as a smear of Tom Yawkey's name. “As we have said throughout this process, the effort to expunge Tom Yawkey’s name has been based on a false narrative about his life and his historic 43-year ownership of the Red Sox,” the statement reads. “The drastic step of renaming the street, now officially sanctioned by the City of Boston (and contradicting the honor the City bestowed upon Tom Yawkey over 40 years ago), will unfortunately give lasting credence to that narrative and unfairly tarnish his name, despite his unparalleled record of transforming the Red Sox and Fenway Park and supporting the city he loved through his philanthropy.”

There is no false narrative about the Red Sox’ history of racial exclusion under Yawkey’s stewardship. They were the last Major League team to integrate, not signing an African-American player until Pumpsie Green in 1959. Even more damningly, the Red Sox did not employ a single black person at any level of the organization until 1958 –– even in the most menial positions. 

For decades, the Red Sox’ Spring Training hangout barred players of color from joining. Tommy Harper successfully sued the organization in the 1980s for discrimination.

Those are facts. Throughout this entire process, nobody affiliated with the Red Sox has called Tom Yawkey racist or leveled personal barbs against his family. On OMF Thursday, Red Sox president Sam Kennedy stressed the name change was about moving towards a more inclusive future. “As stewards of this franchise, we have an obligation to listen to our constituents, and especially our employees, to make sure we’re doing everything we can each and every day at Fenway to ensure it’s as welcoming and inclusive as possible,” he said. “Frankly, it’s been a consistent refrain since 2002 that there are reminders and symbols of a time period when Fenway wasn't as inclusive as we want it to be.” 

African-American city leaders are behind the name change, including the president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP. In this debate, the black community’s voice should trump all others. They are the ones who grapple with Boston’s history of racism and bigotry. 

The Yawkey Foundation’s laudable contributions to communities of color is mutually exclusive from the Yawkey Way street name. It is disingenuous to conflate the two topics. That’s the point Walter Carrington, the former commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, made after the session. 

“That’s an argument that I never understood,” he said. “The Ford Foundation’s benefactor was a notorious anti-semite, a notorious fan of Adolf Hiter. Publicly, Henry Ford did this. That has not tainted the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation did not go out trying to have a campaign to sanitize the name. You look at the Rockefeller Foundatino, the Carnegie Foundation. Their benefactors were robber barons if you look at their past. That has nothing to do with the foundation. The Yawkey Foundation is doing good work, and they will continue to do it. I don’t see how in the world this would affect the way they operate.” 

State representative Russell Holmes, the only person who testified before the vote, took Carrington’s argument a step further. As the representative of Boston’s blackest district, Holmes said his constituents found the Yawkey Foundation’s behavior insulting. 

“They want to see remorse. They want to see them taking responsibility,” he explained.

Holmes was particularly miffed about an advertisement that appeared recently in the Boston Globe, which highlighted the Yawkey Foundation’s financial contributions towards Boston’s black community. 

“I was very offended by the ad that was put out over the weekend,” he said. “The ad talked about ‘we giveth, and we taketh.’ It sends the message of old-school politics, it sends the message of arrogance, it sends the message of white privilege here in this city. Essentially, the African-American community, ‘We’ve gIven you somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million or so, and essentially, you should shut up.’ That’s how i hear it.”

In a conversation with me afterwards, Holmes said the discussion surrounding Yawkey Way is important to have, given the heightened racial tensions around the country.

Changing the name of Yawkey Way is a symbolic gesture. It will not solve racism or tangibly improve lives. But it shows the Red Sox are committed to correcting their previous wrongs. 

"Tom Yawkey's name will no longer be on the street,” Carrington said. “I and others like me can go to Fenway Park feeling very proud of the Red Sox today and the city of Boston, which we all love so much.”

The Yawkey name will still be brandished throughout the city, plastered all over hospitals, universities and communities. A man’s legacy is more than a street sign, which served as nothing more than a relic of a more bigoted past.  

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