HOUSTON -- A bronze statue honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. officially makes its debut this Memorial Day weekend, finally fulfilling both a community group’s longstanding dream and a transit agency’s expensive promise.
The statue scheduled for unveiling on Saturday might never have been built without a stubborn old man’s passionate commitment to a live oak tree.
Nobody would dare say it publicly, but a good many people working for local governments privately grumble and roll their eyes when they talk about the long saga of the Martin Luther King Tree of Life.
The story starts more than three decades ago, when the Black Heritage Society led by Ovide Duncantell decided to build a statue in King’s honor. The group had trouble raising the money, so in 1983 it planted a live oak tree in the median near the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Old Spanish Trail.
“The tree was supposed to stand in place as a sentinel for the soon to come statue that would be placed in that same position,” said Sandra Massie Hine with the Black Heritage Society.
The tree flourished for decades, but Duncantell’s group never managed to find the funds for the memorial statue. Then along came Metro, which wanted to build a rail line down Martin Luther King Boulevard. The tree stood directly in the middle of the road, right where Metro wanted to build a rail station.
“When they cut it down, they’ll cut me down,” Duncantell vowed, eventually chaining himself to the tree to pressure Metro officials.
So Metro wound up footing the bill for an unexpected expense, spending $750,000 to transplant the tree and build infrastructure for a plaza honoring King. With that commitment, the Black Heritage Society said it was able to raise private funds to build the statue.
“Oh, it goes back a long ways,” said Ken Washington, the sculptor hired to build the statue designed by Duncantell. “We feel we have such an honor of being a part of it, because it’s been so long in the making.”
The plaza surrounding the statue features quotes from King speeches inscribed in granite, along with a walkway highlighting 39 milestones from the 39 years of his life. It was designed by Mike Williams, who also designed Metro’s train stations.
“I was so inspired after reading his speeches that I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something to where I can connect Martin Luther King to the city of Houston,” he said.
He ended up drawing a line on a map leading from the Atlanta birthplace of King through the old location of the tree, then another line leading from the Memphis site of King’s assassination through the tree’s new location. The statue was placed on the spot where the two lines intersect.