The East Baton Rouge Parish Planning Commission unanimously approved plans Monday to rename a portion of downtown’s East Boulevard to T.J. Jemison Boulevard in honor of the civil rights icon known as the architect of the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott.
The name change recommendation brought both support and opposition from residents in nearby neighborhoods. Friends of Jemison said his legacy deserves to be commemorated, but some Beauregard Town residents pointed out the importance of the name East Boulevard in defining the boundaries of the historic neighborhood.
East Boulevard has had that name since the founding of Beauregard Town in the early 1800s. It’s one of the neighborhood’s boundaries, along with North and South boulevards.
But East Boulevard is also the home to Mount Zion First Baptist Church, where Jemison preached and organized the eight-day bus boycott that inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to organize a yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.
Jemison died two years ago at age 95.
The newly named T.J. Jemison Boulevard would span part of East Boulevard and North Ninth Street, from Government Street to Florida Street.
One complaint is that the road already has too many names, as it switches from North Ninth Street to East Boulevard to Thomas H. Delpit Drive.
The name change recommendation now goes to the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council.
“The pillars that are Baton Rouge right now — (Jemison) helped put those things up,” said Christopher Toombs, Mount Zion’s youth minister. Toombs recalled sitting outside of the church as a child and watching Jemison help the homeless people who lined up near the church.
Jemison’s 58-year-old son, Ted Jemison, also advocated for the name change. He said his father modeled the example of how to love everyone despite their differences.
“Color didn’t matter. He loved white; he loved black; he loved everybody,” Ted Jemison said.
The Beauregard Town residents who opposed the name change said T.J. Jemison does deserve to be honored but renaming the street is not the best way to do it.
Resident Melanie Montanaro said naming the city’s downtown greenway after Jemison might be more appropriate and would be more visible than renaming a portion of a street.
“I don’t think we should discount the importance of those border street names,” Montanaro said. “This is just one of the last vestiges of Baton Rouge history.”
Beauregard Town Civic Association leader Neal Novak agreed, saying he does not want a new street name to infringe on the neighborhood’s historical integrity.
State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, sponsored the proposal for the name change. She said she would love for Jemison to be commemorated in other ways as well — such as naming the greenway after him — but changing the street name is still necessary.
This past spring, the Louisiana Legislature also approved building a statue of Jemison on Capitol grounds.