James Smith will have to wait until January 2023 to petition the Texas State Legislature to rename a section of Interstate 35 in honor of Atatiana Jefferson.
For the past 14 months, Smith has been trying to get a stretch of the highway renamed after his former neighbor after she was shot and killed by a Fort Worth police officer sent to her home for a wellness check on Oct. 12, 2019.
Smith was the one who called the police on a non-emergency line to check on Jefferson after seeing her front door ajar late a night. He said he was also present when Jefferson’s mother, Yolanda Carr, died in January 2020, talking on the phone with Carr’s daughters as paramedics from the Fort Worth Fire Department pulled up.
“Every day is still October 12th to me,” Smith said. He told the Star-Telegram he felt responsible for her death and has tried to memorialize her both with the I-35 designation, and 16 memorial street signs along East Allen Avenue near Jefferson’s house.
Smith vented to the Fort Worth City Council on Tuesday that delays from the previous council had extended the process of getting the section of highway renamed.
The current city council voted in favor of a resolution to rename a section of the interstate at its Aug. 17 meeting only to be told that the portion of I-35 running through Fort Worth is already designated as the Purple Heart Trail.
Changing the designation will require a vote of the Texas legislature. But that can’t happen until its next regular session in 2023.
Smith contended that he wouldn’t have to wait as long if the previous city council had passed the resolution earlier in the year while the state legislature was still in session.
“I’m just upset they didn’t afford me the opportunity,” Smith said.
Former District 8 City Councilmember Kelley Allen Gray, who Smith was in frequent contact with about the name change, said there was no guarantee Smith could have prevailed during the 2021 regular session.
“In the middle of this legislative session there were a lot of things going on,” Gray said. “I can’t Monday morning quarterback it, and, truthfully, neither can he.”
Gray left office in June after losing a reelection bid.
Gray pointed to the designation of the Atatiana Jefferson Memorial Parkway between East Allen Avenue at I-35 and East Maddox Avenue at U.S. 287 as an example of the actions taken by the previous city council to honor Jefferson’s memory.
“It does so many people’s hearts good to sit at the corner of New York or Mississippi and Allen at that light and see those signs much more for most than to whiz by it on Interstate 35,” Gray said.
Smith countered that designating a section of the interstate will give Jefferson’s memory the prominence it deserves.
“To me, her name is as important as Hazel Harvey Peace, or Viola Pitts, or T.A. Simms, or Edward Briscoe,” Smith said, referencing the names of prominent Fort Worth people whose names have been immortalized by the Fort Worth Independent School District.
He compared what he sees as a lack of urgency by the former council to the delays in the trial of former Fort Worth Police Officer Aaron Dean, who shot Jefferson. Dean was charged with murder shortly after Jefferson’s death, but is still awaiting a trial date two years later.
Smith worried that Jefferson is already being forgotten in the wake of prominent cases like Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. He sees his effort to memorialize a section of I-35 as giving Jefferson the respect she deserves.
“Her life mattered,” Smith said.