It was a day to remember for a man who longed to see his vision come to pass and for his supporters who never stopped fighting to see that vision come to fruition.
An oasis of nearly 3,000 people gathered at MacGregor Park in Houston to witness the unveiling ceremony of the 8-foot bronze statue dedicated to the legacy of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that took over 34 years to materialize.
The unveiling was such a monumental occasion that even S.H.A.P.E. Community Center Executive Director Deloyd Parker decided to host his 35-year Pan African Cultural Festival at MacGregor Park in order to join in with the Black Heritage Society for the festivities.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Project-Houston represents a long-awaited effort by Ovide Duncantell, who has served as the Black Heritage Society Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, to officially recognize, sustain and keep the dream and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. alive forever.
The Black Heritage Society, headed by Duncantell and his Project Manager Sylvester Brown, led the herculean effort to create the tribute to Dr. King.
The Black Heritage Society recently donated the $120,000 bronze statue, sculpted by Ken Washington of Greensboro, N.C., to the city of Houston’s public art collection. The city will maintain the statue and the memorial plaza, with collaborative participation from the Black Heritage Society. The memorial plaza surrounding the statue features quotes from Dr. King’s speeches inscribed in granite, along with a pathway highlighting 39 key milestones representing the 39 years of his life.
The statue, which depicts Dr. King in a clergy robe while holding his Bible, faces the corner of Old Spanish Trail and MLK Boulevard. It was unveiled after a parade, that led everyone to MacGregor Park, and a march through the park itself.
The program included remarks by Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King III, and his nephew, the Rev. Derek King.
"Every time a monument is erected, it gives a sense of hope to the community and then reminds us that the work is not done," said Martin Luther King III.
In addition, the fiery Rev. Joseph Lowery, the 92-year-old former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) who gave the colorful benediction at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009 and was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, shared words with the crowd.
Lowery, who was also at the reception the evening prior, applauded everyone for not waiting on the government to place a monument in Houston, in honor of Dr. King. He also mentioned that he wished that there was legislation passed that reflects what Dr. King spoke about.
Duncantell presented U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee with the 2014 Mountain Top Award on behalf of the Black Heritage Society. The previous years' recipient was Nelson Mandela and this year marked the first time the award was given to a local person.
The quest to complete this project has been a long journey that took a lot of negotiation and patience.
Although the memorial project was originally voted on unanimously by the Houston City Council, various complications held up the projec that was slated to be completed in 1980; one of them was funding. A determined Duncantell was committed to sustain the legacy of Dr. King in Houston, and was prepared to do anything to see that vision come to pass.
It was Dr. King’s father, Rev. King, Sr., who suggested that Duncantell plant an oak tree at the corner of Old Spanish Trail and MLK Boulevard in 1983, in order to keep the memory of Dr. King alive, and to ensure no one would ever forget the end goal to build the statue. Having the blessing of Rev. King was not entirely surprising, because back in 1974, it was Duncantell who spearheaded the effort to get the city of Houston to have South Park Boulevard renamed to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.
Congresswoman Jackson Lee, who worked around Rev. King Sr. at the SCLC as a college student, witnessed the struggle that Duncantell endured trying to get the MLK memorial done. She says that many people joined in for the cause of ensuring that the legacy of Dr. King would be preserved in the city of Houston.
"It was the vision of Ovide Duncantell that gave us the roadmap to be able to move our collective bodies and minds to make this memorial a success," said Congresswoman Jackson Lee. "There were many hands that prayed and got behind the vision to make the vision a reality."
The memorial tree remained at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Old Spanish Trail for decades, while discussions about building the memorial remained dormant for years; that was until the Metropolitan Transit Authority (METRO) announced it was planning to run their rail line down Martin Luther King Boulevard, through the path where the memorial tree was located. Duncantell immediately sprung into action.
The Black Heritage Society and METRO began negotiations in 2009, trying to determine how construction would be handled and how the King memorial tree could remain intact. Those negotiations hit a major snag in 2012. Duncantell, who believed METRO was not willing to properly negotiate, decided to take drastic measures in order to preserve the memorial tree along with the memory of Dr. King. In an act of utter defiance, Duncantell chained himself to the memorial tree and refused to move unless an agreement was finalized between the Black Heritage Society and METRO.
"I wanted everything in writing," said Duncantell. "I was prepared and willing to go to jail for that tree, because it meant more than just being a tree in a park. The spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is in that tree."
Duncantell made this bold decision because he did not trust METRO or the City of Houston to honor any verbal agreements they made concerning the moving of the tree a hundred yards or so across the street into MacGregor Park, and them allowing the Black Heritage Society to have any say concerning the memorial. With the help of Congresswoman Jackson Lee and others, METRO and the City of Houston eventually provided the Black Heritage Society with the assurances Duncantell requested and now the vision has been fulfilled.
The memorial plaza, which is located in the 18th Congressional District, got Congresswoman Jackson Lee more involved with helping orchestrate the agreements that needed to happen. In order to get the deal done, METRO had to step up to the plate and chose to use some of the federal funds secured by Congresswoman Jackson Lee, in order to legally make it work.
METRO picked up the $750,000 tab to move ‘The Tree Of Life’, as it is called, to MacGregor Park. In addition, when the tree began to die because of the move, METRO spent another $200,000 to preserve the tree and the cost for constructing the memorial plaza that was designed and built near the tree. The bronze statue was commissioned and paid for with private funds.
Duncantell has always had a heart for his community and a sincere passion for public service. Duncantell has provided no greater example of commitment to the community, as the one he has shown the Greater Houston area for 40 years.
In 1974, he founded the Black Heritage Society as a non-profit organization with the primary mission of keeping the dream and spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. alive. With this memorial plaza, Duncantell wants people to know that the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Project teaches everyone about Dr. King’s commitment to bring justice to the disenfranchised.
One of the primary goals that Duncantell hopes to see come to pass is making sure the youth in the community know Dr. King beyond being just a civil rights leader, but also learn about his accomplishments, trials, and tribulations, all of which have helped shape his legacy.
"We want them to remember Dr. King’s legacy," he said. "We want little children from now to two thousand years from now to look at that monument and the stones that are out there. We have Dr. King’s life chronology planted in stone."
Congresswoman Jackson Lee says that she is working with Minister Robert Muhammad and others to discuss plans to get other entities and educational institutions involved, like the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, to make sure that the legacy of Dr. King is shared with more people, especially the youth, across the Greater Houston area.
Duncantell and his supporters believe that the memorial is especially important for young people who did not have the experiences or live through the civil rights era, and believes the memorial helps everyone remember such an important man that was such an important part of our history.
and slated to be completed in 1980