Bowing to criticism that the name Jap Road was insensitive, Jefferson County commissioners voted Monday to rename the nearly century-old rural thoroughfare.
Commissioners listened to about three hours of testimony from nearly four dozen people, alternating between those who wanted to retain the name and those who favored a change, before voting 4-1 to seek a new name.
County Judge Carl Griffith put two people who live along the 4.3-mile road in charge of a committee to come up with a new name and deliver their proposal to him by July 29.
“There are people in this country that believe we are a bunch of racists, and that is so, so far from the truth,” Griffith said.
Commissioner Mark Domingue, the lone dissenter, said he wanted people 20 years from now to look back and “think the court had the backbone to maintain that part of our history.”
Griffith, the Anti-Defamation League and one resident who lives along the road said they would pay for a historical marker to tell the story of Yasuo Mayumi, the Japanese rice farmer who lived at the end of the road and whose ancestry gave the road its name in 1905. Mayumi returned to his homeland in the mid-1920s.
About 150 people crowded the commissioners’ meeting, and the vote came after pleas that focused on history and sensitivity.
“I am very offended by the claim I am a racist and bigot because I am trying to preserve history,” county resident Jimmy Norton said.
“Losing Jap Road would be like losing a part of who we are,” said Donnie Harvey, who’s lived along the county road for 32 years.
But Martin Kominsky, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, gave commissioners a petition with more than 4,300 signatures on it in favor of a name change.
“There is no getting around the fact that the word is a racial slur,” he said.
Samuel Bean, head of the local NAACP chapter, agreed, saying Jap Road was “an offensive racial slur and an embarrassment to our community.”
Suzi Waldman Gerstenhaber, a Houston lawyer who grew up in Beaumont, said she’s experienced hurt and hate because she is Jewish. She urged a name change so Jefferson County could show that it’s “a sensitive and caring community.”
The Japanese American Citizens League says while it understood the historic reasons for the road name, times have changed and a more fitting and appropriate name would be Mayumi Road.
An unsuccessful effort to drop the name began in the early 1990s when Sandra Tanamachi, whose grandfather immigrated to Texas from Japan, decided to try a popular seafood restaurant about 20 miles outside her hometown of Beaumont, a city of nearly 115,000 about 80 miles east of Houston. She knew it was on Jap Road, but didn’t realize the offensive effect it would have on her family until they got there.
“I was called names when I was a little kid and ’Jap’ was one of them,” Willie Tanamachi, Sandra’s uncle, told the commissioners. “It was always used to put me down.”
Micki Kawakami, an Idaho woman whose parents were housed in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, thought what should be taken away from Monday’s session was that everyone wanted to honor the Mayumi family.
“We are not Japs,” she told commissioners. “The people here are not bigots or racists. May I suggest you inherited a road with a racist name?”