Displaced by I-71 interchange project, Martin Luther King monument still in need of a new home

Beloved statue still waiting in storage

CINCINNATI -- For years, the Martin Luther King Jr. monument at Reading Road and Martin Luther King Drive served as a focal point for Cincinnati’s Martin Luther King Day celebrations.

Marches in King’s honor ended with the laying of a wreath on the monument, the city’s only memorial to the civil rights leader.

Now, the monument lies wrapped up inside a storage shed at Fenton Rigging & Contracting Inc. in Bond Hill, where it has been since Fenton excavated it and removed it to make way for a new interchange on Interstate 71.
Where it will go from there isn’t clear.

“That is a deep concern,” said the Rev. Aaron Greenlea, a member of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Greater Cincinnati and Vicinity, the custodian of the monument. “It’s very dear to all of our hearts.”

It can’t go back precisely where it was, Greenlea said, because that spot will be under Reading Road, which is being widened to create turning lanes in connection with the interchange project.

The land on which it previously stood was owned by UC Health LLC, the successor to Jewish Hospital.UC Health would consider putting the monument back on its property, said the health service consortium’s interim Vice President of Marketing Chris Ralston. But the best location for the monument will depend on several factors, he said.

The Baptist Ministers Conference will decide where to put the monument when construction is complete, said Brian Cunningham, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the interchange work.

“However, it will not be placed in ODOT right of way,” he said.

The Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., a member of the conference and also of the UC Health board of directors, said the monument could be placed close to where it was, but only if it would be seen by passing motorists.

“We want it to be somewhere it could be visible,” he said.

The monument is a 5-foot-tall, rectangular chunk of dark gray granite. King’s face is carved into one side, with the quote “Free at last” chiseled in block letters below it.

More writing chiseled into the stone describes how the monument was erected in September 1987 to commemorate King’s life and legacy, and that it was donated by Jewish Hospital and erected by the conference, in cooperation with the city of Cincinnati.

The ceremony that accompanied the installation of the monument marked the renaming of Melish Avenue as Martin Luther King Drive.

The idea for a monument honoring King first came from former Zion Baptist Church pastor the Rev. L.V. Booth, who was talking about it from the pulpit soon after King’s assassination in 1968, Greenlea said. At the time, Zion was the largest primarily African-American church in Cincinnati, he said, and Booth was internationally known, having founded the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

Clearly, he said, it took many years for the vision to become a reality.

In its capacity as custodian of the monument, the conference was named in a lawsuit filed by ODOT in September that also named the “unknown owners” of the monument and UC Health. The lawsuit concerns the eight-tenths of an acre that UC Health owned at the northwest corner of Martin Luther King and Reading, where the monument stood.

In the lawsuit, ODOT asks the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to fix a price for the property because UC Health believes it is worth more than the $450,000 that ODOT offered, Cunningham said. The monument’s custodians and owner are named in the suit only because of the monument’s association with the property in question, he said.

Condemnation lawsuits such as this one typically end with the court appointing a mediator, who determines a fair price for the property, he said.

The property is one of about a dozen of the 140 needed for the $80 million interchange project whose owners ODOT hasn’t been able to agree with on a price, Cunningham said. Construction began in August 2014, he said, and the entire project is scheduled to be complete in the summer of 2017.

Because of the pending litigation, UC Health officials declined to say how much they thought the property was worth.

ODOT agreed to pay the expenses of moving and storing the monument during construction, as well as the cost of erecting it again, Greenlea said. ODOT paid Fenton $4,365 to store it for a year, but that period ends in June, Fenton project manager Chris Besl said.

ODOT would consider providing additional storage if needed, Cunningham said, but the monument could be replaced today if the conference found a spot that didn’t interfere with the interchange project.

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