Oprah Winfrey

By Rosetta Miller Perry

Whenever a suggestion is made to honor people, particularly notable Black figures either past or present, there are always those ready to ridicule or dismiss the idea. It doesn’t matter whether it has merit, or the proposed individual deserves the honor. There will be those who simply don’t want to do it, either because they resent said person,  or they don’t want to see Black icons get mainstream public  recognition and admiration.

At-large councilwoman Sharon Hurt has gotten a less than warm reaction from airport officials since she proposed renaming Nashville International Airport after Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey is far more than just a celebrity billionaire: she’s spent the bulk of her broadcasting career seeking to inspire and uplift others. 

She’s also a living symbol of Black success whose roots in this city and state extend back to her years as a student at both East High School and Tennessee State University. She also got her broadcasting start here over 40 years ago. Her father Vernon is a former Metro Council member who has owned a barber shop in East Nashville for over five decades.

Hurt’s proposal would rename it “The Oprah G. Winfrey International Airport.” She said in a recent interview that “Nashville is in a very unique position to be able to offer that type of recognition to someone that’s very deserving. I think it’s a grand opportunity for us to recognize someone of Oprah’s stature.”

But the way some people are reacting it’s almost like she wanted the airport renamed after a gangster or convicted felon rather than a beloved broadcaster and entrepreneur.  Airport officials spewed standard rhetoric that current airport policy requires a person be deceased two years, and Winfrey doesn’t meet their naming requirement because that person must have “made a substantial contribution” to the Nashville International Airport, or the field of aviation.

Let’s be serious. First, that policy only dates back to 2010, so it’s hardly set in stone. Second, there’s absolutely no reason it can’t be amended or changed. Indeed in a November 21 response letter to Hurt’s proposal Nashville International Airport President and CEO Doug Kreulen acknowledged that “Ms. Winfrey’s achievements and accolades are too numerous to recite.” Plus, the 10-member Nashville Authority Board has the ability to overturn that naming policy.  All it needs is a proposal on the table.

The Tennessee Tribune joins with Sharon Hurt and strongly supports this idea. We agree with the sentiments she expressed in a Monday e-mail to mayor David Briley where she said “I really believe we are missing a unique and grand opportunity by not even considering the proposal.” We also share her misgivings about the tone and attitude displayed by Kreulen in his response.

There may also be other issues in play here. Hurt has requested more information about the airport’s current track record in regards to opportunities afforded to minority contractors. “It seems their participation in inclusion and diversity has been deceptive and minimal,” Hurt said in that same e-mail. She noted a lack of Black and women members in either the airport’s executive leadership or on its board.

Airport officials responded with boilerplate comments on diversity, but offered no specifics in their statements. The mayor’s office has decided not to take a position on this issue. Briley’s media spokesperson Thomas Mulgrew said the mayor encourages Hurt to take the proposal directly to the airport authority.

For those who claim naming the airport after Oprah would somehow be some great change in city policy, Hurt points out there are already city-owned facilities named after John Seigenthaler, Karl F. Dean and Richard Fulton. All were deserving of that honor, and so is Oprah Winfrey.

Nashville rightly recently renamed a street after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and there’s also Rosa Parks Avenue. But that doesn’t resonate in the same manner as naming a major airport after Winfrey. “I think that Oprah has accomplished and achieved greatness that we will never see in our lifetime,” Hurt adds. “Because of that and the ties that we have, I think this is an opportunity we have to immediately honor her and recognize her.”

The Tribune adds its voice in support of Sharon Hurt’s proposal. We urge the Airport Authority to immediately introduce a plan to change the naming policy, and quickly follow through and make it “The Oprah G. Winfrey International Airport.” It won’t put any extra burden on the taxpayers, nor require anything beyond making certain her name gets on the airport. It would also bring a lot of highly positive publicity to this city, and be another indication that Nashville has just as high a regard for its Black celebrities and achievers as it does for its white ones.