On an early, mid-October morning last year, James Smith made a phone call that he will likely regret for the rest of his life. Smith noticed his neighbor’s front door was open, so he called a non-emergency police phone number to have someone conduct a welfare check.
As it turns out, his neighbors, Atatiana Jefferson and her nephew, were fine and inside playing video games. But, the Fort Worth police didn’t know that when they showed up and Jefferson certainly didn’t expect the cops or anyone else to come walking around her house.
So, when she heard noises coming from outside, according to police documents, she grabbed a handgun from her purse and approached the window. When she did, then-Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean fired his weapon into the house, killing Jefferson.
Ever since, Smith has been working to memorialize his neighbor’s name. This week, Fort Worth City Council gave the green light to renaming a portion of the street where the shooting occurred in honor of Jefferson.
The stretch of Allen and Maddox Avenue from Interstate 35W to U.S. 287 will be named Atatiana Jefferson Memorial Parkway. There’s a mural dedicated to Jefferson painted on the side of a privately owned building not far from Smith’s neighborhood. The painting is nice, but it could always be erased, painted over, he said.
“I wanted her to be remembered in a permanent way where people who come to the neighborhood would see her name and remember her story,” Smith said.
Smith has lived on the street for 60 years and in the neighborhood for 63. Originally, he was aiming to get a portion of I-35 renamed after Jefferson. To do this, the city told Smith he would have to go through the Texas Department of Transportation. When he called the department, he was told he’d have to go through the city.
It was around this time that Smith’s council member, Kelly Allen Gray, suggested he instead focus his efforts toward the street. So, he began going door to door in his neighborhood seeking support from the community. It was required that he get 100 percent approval from the neighbors, and he did.
When it was finally brought to the council for approval, Smith told the members that renaming the street was simply the right thing to do. They voted unanimously in favor of the change.
There are similar efforts taking place around the country.
In Baltimore, a City Council member sponsored a bill to rename a Christoper Columbus monument to honor victims of police brutality. In Louisville, Kentucky, community activists are trying to get a portion of Jefferson Square Park named after Breonna Taylor, killed in her home during a police raid.
Dallas council member Adam Bazaldua is working to rename a section of R.L. Thornton Freeway after Juanita J. Craft, a major female figure in the modern civil rights movement. And for some time now, efforts have been underway to change the name of Lamar Street to Botham Jean Boulevard in honor of the man murdered in his apartment by now-former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in 2018.
All of these efforts are part of a nationwide push to make the landscape of the country represent the people who built it. Local author Edward Sebesta calls this "landscape reparations."
Some say there needs to be reform, not just symbolic gestures like renaming streets. While Sebesta agrees reform is required to make a more equitable state, he says symbolism matters. Crosses are symbols too, he says, and if you look around you'll notice most churches have them.
In May, the Jefferson family home was vandalized. Local activist Pamela Grayson and a few members of the community came together to clean up the mess. Besides the bullet hole in the window that Jefferson was shot through, Grayson said they got the house looking as good as new.
After the cleanup, Grayson was asked to serve on the board of The Atatiana Project. The goal of the project is to raise money for the creation of The Atatiana Jefferson Project Center, a facility where children of color can be provided a pathway into science, technology, math and gaming fields.
So, when she heard about Smith’s efforts, she was quick to jump on board and help bring them to fruition.
“The landscape should rightfully reflect my ancestors and families as this country was built on our backs for free,” Grayson said. “Fort Worth owes it to [Atatiana] to permanently memorialize her as she was a daughter of Fort Worth too, a beautiful Black woman, and her family, The Atatiana Project, and the community deserve this acknowledgment.”
Grayson was also involved in the initial efforts to change Lamar Street to Botham Jean Boulevard, along with local activists Yafeuh Balogun and Davante Peters. Balogun said Dallas needs to follow suit and approve the street name change next month.
Smith said he is still interested in renaming a portion of I-35 after Jefferson, but he said renaming streets will not bring justice to his late neighbor.
“This wasn’t about justice,” Smith said. “This was about doing the right thing. Justice has yet to come.”
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