The more than 30 community members at a public meeting at Eastside Community Baptist Church Thursday afternoon had differing opinions regarding the potential name change of the Eastside’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Bridge over Salado Creek.
While some believe the current name should remain, the majority advocated for renaming the structure after the late Eastside community activist Rev. R.A. Callies, the bridge’s initial namesake. Callies led the charge to build the structure to provide a safe path for school children and families to reach WW White Road after heavy rains.
Thursday’s public meeting was hosted by City Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) and his office to gather community input on the matter. This spring, a number of neighborhood residents, including Callies’ family, brought the name change idea to Warrick, who then formally asked that the community consider the change. He formed a committee, comprised of City staff and other community leaders, to oversee the process. Members of the committee include Mike Frisbie, City capital improvements management services director and the City’s lead bridge engineer, City Director of Development Services Roderick Sanchez and Pastor Paul Jones of the Greater Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church.
Frisbie and Demonte Alexander, District 2 director of communications, led the meeting.
Callies was an influential father, teacher, pastor and leader who set out to change San Antonio’s Eastside for the better.
He is credited with initiating the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. March, one of the largest of its kind in the country. He pushed to change Nebraska Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. He went before City Council numerous times to demand street lights and improvement to roads on the Eastside, and even collected money on the corner of East Houston Street and North New Braunfels Avenue to pay for the statue of King that now stands at the plaza named for the civil rights leader.
“(Callies) was the one who started the (MLK) March on the Eastside and to see this man doing the work he was actually doing, lifting up Martin Luther King … This man is the reason why we have passage over Salado Creek,” said Dolores Lott, former interim District 2 City councilwoman. She passed the city ordinance that named the bridge over Salado Creek for Callies in 1997.
Eastside residents later approached then-District 2 Councilman Mario Salas and requested that the bridge name be changed to Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Bridge. The name was changed within a year or two amid upset from some community members, but it has not changed since.
Salas was at the meeting and stood to clarify that it was not his decision to change the name from Callies to Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I was the City Councilman when many of the residents – over 100 – asked me to change (the bridge’s name) to Martin Luther King. That’s what they wanted, and that’s what I did,” he said. “But if the majority want to go back to (Rev. R.A. Callies), I’m not opposed to it.”
Three of Cailles five children talked of their father’s commitment to the community and told stories of how he changed people’s lives.
“We have to honor our icon, one who has put our city on the map, one who started the Martin Luther King March,” Doris Callies-Dunlap, one of Callies’ daughters, said. “We are still honoring Dr. King, but we have to embrace our icon who was there for the whole community.”
Earl Jamison, a retiree who’s lived in the area for 37 years, is not in favor of changing the bridge’s name back to Re. R.A. Callies Freedom Bridge.
“I understand that this is a community (Callies) helped the kids in, but Martin Luther King helped more people around the country,” Jamison said. “Why do you want to change the name and degrade Martin Luther King? It would be a shame to degrade the icon of the whole country for the icon of one city.”
Yvette Wilson, also a daughter of Callies, said that her father’s work deserves to be remembered like the other men in San Antonio’s history.
“All of these different highways in this city are named after (people) who did so much. Like Ms. Lott said, (my father) did so much,” Wilson said. “We’re not taking anything away from Dr. King. Look at all the streets, all the freeways that are named after him. My father deserves this much.”
Nettie Hinton, a longtime Eastside resident and Warrick’s aunt, took a neutral position.
“My win-win (idea) is to add Reverend Callies to the bridge and make it the Reverends Callies King Bridge,” Hinton said. She also mentioned that she was concerned about the potential for the issue to go viral on social media if people heard that King’s name might to be removed.
State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-120) agreed that Callies deserves this recognition, especially within his own community.
“I believe that we have to honor our local icons. No doubt our beloved Martin Luther King will never leave us, but I do believe we need to memorialize those folks that have done good things in our community,” Gervin-Hawkins said. “Our children and our children’s children need to know our heroes, and we don’t want to dilute it at all.”
Arlington Callies, son of Callies, said that his sisters had already expressed much of what he wanted to say, but that there was still one important thing to remember.
“If Dad had not gone to City Council and made a proposal, would the bridge be here? Would Martin Luther King have come all the way down here? He had too much work to do elsewhere,” Arlington said. “So that’s the question we need to ask ourselves. If he had not gone down to City Council over and over again, I think we would probably still be trying to find an alternate route to get to WW White Road.”
Frisbie, Warrick, and the rest of the bridge renaming committee will take the input from Thursday’s meeting to City Council when council members return from summer recess in August. Alexander said that the item will appear on the agenda for either the first or second Council session. If the request receives majority Council approval, Frisbie said, the name changing process would be fairly quick.
Top image: Traffic drives on the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Bridge. Photo by Scott Ball.