Jeramey Jannene

Honorary Street Name For Lena’s Food Co-Founder

City honoring late entrepreneur Bezelee Martin.

By - Apr 5th, 2022 05:45 pm
331-339 W. North Ave., home of the Bronzeville Collective. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

331-339 W. North Ave., home of the Bronzeville Collective. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A stretch of the former N. 4th Street will soon honor two Milwaukee leaders.

N. Vel R. Phillips Avenue will be given honorary signage recognizing Bezelee Martin between W. Garfield Ave. and W. Meinecke Ave.

Martin became Wisconsin’s first licensed Black car dealer in the 1950s. With his wife, Lena Martin, he opened Lena’s Food Market at 338 W. North Ave. in 1965. Bezelee was also known as “Milwaukee’s dried bean king” for his sale of black-eyed peas and other dried beans through his Black Gem business, according to a 1976 Milwaukee Journal article.

“We went from two stores in that area all the way up to six stores. We employed over 600 people at one time,” said Bezelee and Lena’s son Derrick Martin to the Public Works Committee on March 9.

Bezelee Martin passed away on July 27 at the age of 88.

The younger Martin, one of three siblings, nominated a stretch of W. North Ave. in Bronzeville to be honorarily named after his father. But the city only allows only one honorary street name per street, and the east-west stretch already honors America’s Black Holocaust Museum founder James Cameron.

Martin pivoted to requesting the nearby stretch of N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. be honorarily renamed. The family still owns the adjacent properties at 319-321 W. North Ave. and 331-339 W. North Ave., home of the Bronzveville Collective stores.

“He kind of helped redevelop that entire area over there,” said Martin. The family still owns a number of properties in Milwaukee, though Lena’s Food Market is no more.

4th Street, running from downtown to W. Capitol Dr., was officially renamed in 2018 for Vel Phillips following her death at the age of 94. The political giant was the first woman and first African-American elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, Wisconsin’s first Black judge and the first African-American to ever hold a statewide public office.

A short portion of Phillips’ street will now have blue street signs also recognizing Maritn.

“Congratulations to you guys. You had a wonderful, excellent father,” said Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II. He said he considers Bezelee’s brother Bruce Martin a mentor.

“The Martin family, and Bezelee in particular, has done so much for our community,” said area Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs.

The council unanimously approved the renaming.

Categories: City Hall, Weekly

One thought on “Honorary Street Name For Lena’s Food Co-Founder”

  1. Jim Gramling says:

    In the late 70’s I took a group of students from Garfield Avenue School to interview Mr. Martin for the school newspaper. He was gracious and generous with his time. The students learned a great deal about Lena’s. I hope they have retained the wonderful memory as long as I have. This tribute is well-deserved.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us