Construction on the National Museum of Gospel at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Douglas on Sept. 22, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

DOUGLAS — Douglas, the city’s official name for the area south of 26th Street that everyone calls Bronzeville, might be getting a new name.

Ald. Lamont Robinson (4th) is behind the push to rename the Douglas neighborhood in honor of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Douglas, which is named after Democratic politician Stephen Douglas, stretches 1.67 miles from 26th Street to Pershing Road between State Street and the lake. It is one of three neighborhoods within Bronzeville. Oakland and Grand Boulevard round out the trio.

Robinson co-hosted a virtual community town hall with Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) on Tuesday to discuss the matter. He released a one-page memo laying out his argument for the name change, noting Douglas’ ties to slavery and his opposition to abolition.

“Stephen Douglas held the belief that ‘Black people were not equal to Whites.’ Douglas opposed the abolition of slavery and basic civil rights for Black people and financially benefited from his wife’s slave plantation. History has taught us the importance of acknowledging and rectifying the injustices of the past. We need to rectify the wrongs of the past and implement a name that residents can be proud of,” Robinson said in the memo.

An archival image of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Douglas on Sept. 22, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The freshman alderman said he was inspired by student activists who fought successfully to change the former Douglas Park to Douglass Park on the West Side in 2020. Robinson said in his memo he is “committed to ensuring [the students] are included in conversations” about the name change, adding that students involved in the park’s renaming spoke at Tuesday’s virtual meeting.

Robinson was among a trio of lawmakers who called for the removal of Douglas’ statue in July 2020 and wrote a joint letter to Gov. JB Pritzker imploring him to stop promoting it as a tourist attraction.

Chicago Public Schools has also started the process of renaming schools named for controversial figures. Daniel Boone was renamed Mosaic School of Fine Arts last November, months after Louis Agassiz Elementary was renamed Harriet Tubman. Both Boone and Agassiz harbored racist beliefs, the latter using his scientist credentials to promote eugenics. 

A Sun-Times report found that 30 schools in the district were named for slaveholders. Tubman was the first school to change its name using CPS’s review process.

Local efforts to redress past wrongs mirror those across the country, with the removal of Confederate monuments and the renaming of professional football teams in the wake of the George Floyd uprisings.

In Chicago, a Christopher Columbus statue still hasn’t been returned to Grant Park three years after young activists fought to have it removed. The statue, along with two others bearing Columbus’ likeness, remain in storage.

Antoinette Wright, president of the Gospel Music Museum, at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Douglas on Sept. 22, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

‘There Are So Many More Things To Focus On’

The Douglas neighborhood includes a parcel of land at 35th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue that was used to train Union soldiers and house Confederate prisoners — 26,060 of them — during the Civil War. Before that, the land had been home to the old University of Chicago.

Scholars are as split on whether Douglas as a Democratic senator put party over country as they are on whether Douglas ever truly came to regret his views on slavery. Earlier in his career, he sponsored legislation that created Fugitive Slave laws and pushed the future of slavery to be decided by voters living in states affected by the matter.

Years later, Douglas would find himself on the opposite side of pro-slavery Democrats, breaking ranks with them after a small faction legalized slavery in Kansas several years before the Civil War.

Author and historian Bernard Turner is admittedly nonplussed on the issue. While he understands why the measure to rename Douglas would have broad support, he doesn’t understand why the neighborhood should be named for the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose only known tie to Chicago was his appearance at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

“Douglass was friends with Ida B. Wells, but he really doesn’t have a connection to here. I don’t think the name should be changed. Douglas came around to believe slavery should not expand and that it should not continue to exist,” Turner said.

Turner said he believes the reason people want to change the name is because they don’t know the history of the area’s Civil War ties, adding that it’s one of the reasons visitors are drawn to the neighborhood.

Acknowledging Douglas’ complicated stance on slavery is important, but renaming the community isn’t necessary, Turner said.

“A big concern for me, and probably a lot of people, is safety. Is it safe to walk around there? You know, I think that’s a very important, important issue. And the schools. How good are the schools there? There’s so many more things to focus on than this,” said Turner.

Several Chicago neighborhoods have been renamed throughout the years, mainly by developers and real estate agents looking to lure residents to the area.

In 2021, the North Side LGBTQ+ enclave Boystown was rebranded as Northalsted to be more inclusive. Douglas’s name change would the first to atone for a historical wrong.

Robinson remains focused on renaming the neighborhood.

“The renaming of the Douglas Neighborhood to the Douglass Neighborhood represents a significant step to rectify the association with a historical figure who advocated for slavery. The new name honors Frederick Douglass, who stands for the values of our community. We will be moving forward with the name changing process,” said Robinson.

Robinson will introduce the measure to City Council next month and told Block Club the change could go in effect as soon as January or February 2024.

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