NORTH LAWNDALE — An official campaign to change the name of Stephen A. Douglas Park to Frederick Douglass Park on the West Side got an unofficial boost thanks to someone who was tired of waiting for the Park District to right a historical wrong.
Citing Stephen Douglas’ racist past, a group of students launched a campaign in 2017 to strip Douglas’ name from the park, which sits in a neighborhood that is 87 percent Black. But as the campaign stalled, someone with a steady hand made the change for Chicago, carefully painting an extra “S” on all of the park’s green signs.
Behold, “Douglass Park” … at least on its signs.
Stephen A. Douglas, a Civil War-era Illinois senator, was one of history’s most notorious slavery advocates. In 1858, he famously debated Abraham Lincoln in support of allowing expanded slavery across U.S. territories. While Douglas was not known to have personally owned slaves, he is considered to have de facto endorsed slavery by supporting a state’s right to decide to uphold it.
“He wasn’t an opponent of slavery. He wasn’t an abolitionist. He also thought less of [African-Americans] than any other race,” Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), the area’s alderman, said of Douglas in 2017. “He didn’t think much of black people, and the people that reside in my ward are black people and people of color— and the park where African-American children play every day in my ward should not be named for him.”
In stark contrast, Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave-turned-abolitionist and proponent of economic liberation, human rights and gender equality.
The proposed Douglass Park would honor the legacy of a man born into chattel slavery who ran away to escape to the North. There, he became a talented orator and abolitionist. His highly-esteemed speeches, columns and memoirs detailed his experience living under the horrors of slavery. His work was influential in the abolitionist movement and eventually became foundational in the field of Black political theory.
His most famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” was a blistering rebuke of the farce of American democracy that touted equality while sanctioning the torture and bondage of Black people under slavery.
The Chicago Park District hasn’t recognized the proposed name change in spite of a petition started by students that garnered more than 4,000 signatures. The campaign to rename the park was driven by elementary students at the Village Leadership Academy with the support of neighborhood organizations including the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know if they are going to change the name,” said Sheila McNairy, the chair of Lawndale’s art and culture committee. “It’s at a standstill right now. … Everything they asked for those children to do, they did it.”
The Park District’s process requires advocates for the name change to collect letters of support from residents and local organizations and submit a formal proposal to the general superintendent of the district. The district can then open a 45-day notice period for the public to express support or opposition to the name change. After reviewing public comments, the district may recommend a proposed renaming to its Board of Commissioners for approval.
Douglass Park advocates already collected several letters of support from residents, organizations and local leaders, including Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer and Scott.
Scott said he has been interested in changing the name of the park ever since his days as a park supervisor at Douglas Park, when he was shocked to learn his workplace was named not for the abolitionist but for the senator who argued for preserving slavery.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone who was a pseudo-champion of slavery to have a park named after them in a community that is [home to] people who are the descendants of slaves,” Scott said.
Years later when Scott became alderman, he was approached by students who wanted to name the park after Rekia Boyd, an unarmed Black woman who was slain in Douglas Park by an allegedly intoxicated off-duty police detective who was later acquitted. That idea eventually evolved into the current proposal, which Scott said would be much easier to convince the district to accept.
“It has been a very daunting task to get the Park District to agree to change the name,” he said.
Though the proponents of the name change followed the Park District’s process of collecting letters of support, the district confirmed it has not yet opened up a 45-day notice period for collecting public feedback and has not submitted the proposal to the board.
“There is no precedent for changing the name of a park that was named after a historical figure,” according to a statement from the Park District’s press office.
The Park District denied it received any formal request to change the park’s name.
Scott said he plans to talk to Park District officials about opening up an official comment period to move the process forward, but there is no guarantee the district will ultimately decide to officially rename the park.
While the official name change of the park has stalled, residents have been exploring other avenues to celebrate Douglass’ legacy. Behind the Douglas Park Fieldhouse, young people have been working on a project dubbed Douglass 18 that will revive the formerly defunct mini-golf course there.
The project is guided by artist Haman Cross, who hopes naming the mini-golf course after Douglass will build momentum around renaming the entire park. And as Douglass 18 and the park campaign move forward, Cross said it is important not to lose sight of the history behind the name.
“It’s cool to want to change the name. I think its necessary. But there also needs to be more intention and education about who Frederick Douglass was … and his impact on politics,” Cross said.
And for many residents, the park may as well be called Frederick Douglass Park thanks to the handiwork of the unknown person who changed the signs.
Scott said while he doesn’t condone writing on the signs, few people in North Lawndale would lose sleep over the slight to Stephen Douglas.
“He was a sympathizer of slavery,” Scott said. “It is wrong to have the name of somebody who had apathy towards slavery to be the name of a park that all these people of color use and frequent every day. … I feel no remorse for them doing that.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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