AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some of us might remember when we had a 19th street running through Austin. Now, we know it as just “MLK.”
We can thank Dr. John Jarvis (J.J.) Seabrook — who spoke at a city council meeting in May 1975 and then collapsed from a heart attack — for convincing Austin City Council to memorialize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by renaming 19th street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Originally from South Carolina, Dr. Seabrook moved to Austin and became an educator and eventually president of Huston-Tillotson College in 1965, according to austintexas.gov. He was active in serving his community as a pastor and member of several community-focused groups.
In the 1970s, Dr. Seabrook became active in the 19th Street name change. At the time, the street east of Interstate 35 had already been renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but the name change wasn’t rolled out on the west side of I-35, mostly due to public pushback.
The history of Austin street names
On early Austin planning maps, north-to-south streets are named after rivers and the east-to-west streets are named after trees, with the exception of Water Street, which followed the Colorado River.
In the 1880s, the city council voted to change the original tree-named streets to numbered streets. For example, Pecan Street became Sixth Street — the Pecan Street Festival, held on Sixth Street, honors the original street name — and Magnolia Street changed to 19th Street.
Like many cities, Austin grew as a segregated town. The Black community grew east of East Avenue, where I-35 is now, near the City Cemetary on 19th Street, now known as Oakwood Cemetary.
By 1928, court rulings found that any city’s attempt to segregate people of color to different parts of town was unconstitutional. As a result, Austin had an analysis done suggesting the city could pay to maintain schools, parks and all other facilities “as an incentive to draw” people of color to east Austin, noting that the value of the land in that area was “very low.”
It is our recommendation that the nearest approach to the solution of the race segregation problem will be the recommendation of this district as a negro district; and that all the facilities and conveniences be provided the negroes in this district, as an incentive to draw the negro population to this area. This will eliminate the necessity of duplication of white and black schools, white and black parks, and other duplicate facilities for this area.A City Plan for Austin, Texas, Koch and Fowler, 1928
Eventually, improvements to East Street and the construction of I-35 on top of the road worsened racial segregation, dividing the two parts of town and offering fewer ways for pedestrian traffic.
Honoring a civil rights hero
April 4, 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a spirited and honored leader in the drive to win civil rights for people of color, was assassinated while standing on the balcony of his motel. The tragedy of his death deeply affected the nation.
Over the next few years, Austin and other cities began renaming streets to honor King. The approval to rename 19th Street had already passed the city council April 10, 1975, but while the new street signs were being rolled out on the road east of I-35, businesses on the road west of I-35 pushed back about renaming the street and 19th Street west of I-35 wasn’t changed.
People opposed to naming the west strip of 19th cited the cost of signs and the inconvenience of updating their addresses to a new name. The West 19th Street Association said changing the name of any street within the city limits should need the written consent of two-thirds of the property owners. And, others raised suggestions for Loop 360 or MoPac to be considered for honoring King.
On May 1, 1975, Dr. J. J. Seabrook spoke before Austin City Council to remind them that a new vote wasn’t needed for renaming 19th Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard — the vote had already passed before the public push back in April.
Dr. Seabrook then collapsed from a heart attack. The council then recessed until noon the next day.
That evening, Dr. Seabrook died.
Five days later, the council again brought up the fulfillment of renaming of 19th Street to honor King. Many citizens spoke in favor and in opposition to the plan.
MS. CAROLYN BUCKNALL, noted that the expressway functioned as a barrier between the Black and White; and she felt it fitting that a street honoring Dr. King should reach across that barrier.City Council meeting minutes, May 6, 1975
MRS. POTTER, resident of Northwest Hills, opposed the change in name after anyone and felt that it should remain 19th Street because this area represented the “Texas Exes.”City Council meeting minutes, May 6, 1975
Though the vote by the council is recorded as unanimous, Mayor Roy Butler first voted “no” because he questioned if changing the name of a street someone lives on might overstep on an individual’s right. But, for a “sense of good will and unity,” he changed his vote.
Honoring J. J. Seabrook
Since renaming 19th Street, Dr. Seabrook has also been honored for his efforts to memorialize Dr. King, his achievments and his legacy.
The bridge over I-35 which links the two ends of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was named after J. J. Seabrook. A small bend of road, J.J. Seabrook Drive east of Airport Boulevard, sprouts from MLK. And, the J. J. Seabrook Greenbelt, recently restored by the J. J. Seabrook Neighborhood Association and the City of Austin, butts against MLK Blvd. at Pershing Drive.
Working with the city, Huston-Tillotson University worked to make May 1 “J. J. Seabrook Day,” and a scholarship for the university has been established in Seabrook’s name.
J. J. Seabrook now rests alongside his wife, Opal, at Evergreen Cemetary in Austin.