NORTH LAWNDALE — A campaign to rename Douglas Park is being relaunched by the neighborhood’s youth this weekend.
Many people think the sprawling park that anchors the neighborhood was named after esteemed abolitionist, orator and former enslaved person Frederick Douglass.
But in 2017, a group of Lawndale students attending Village Leadership Academy learned the park they loved to play in actually memorialized Stephen A. Douglas, a Civil War-era Illinois senator and one of the country’s most notorious slavery advocates.
Douglas famously debated Abraham Lincoln in 1858 in support of allowing expanded slavery across U.S. territories. Douglas is not known to have personally owned slaves, but by supporting a state’s right to decide to uphold slavery, he is considered to have de facto endorsed 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) said of Douglas in 2017.
Students decided it was wrong for Douglas Park to glorify a white supremacist, especially as the surrounding neighborhood is nearly all Black.
They got the support of local aldermen, commissioners and residents and filed a formal request for the Park District to add an extra “S” to rename it Douglass Park in honor of Frederick Douglass. The campaign gained traction in the community, but the Park District’s board of commissioners never evaluated the proposed name change.
But after years of inaction from the city, the students at Village Leadership Academy are doubling down by relaunching the campaign to rename the park.
The students, teachers Bianca Jones and Jennifer Pagan and Principal Dayo Harris will host a teach-in at the park Saturday to kick off the campaign and share with the community their expanded demands for the city to rename all streets, monuments and parks that enshrine white supremacists.
“Students recognized that there was a park in their neighborhood named after a white supremacist and clearly someone who did not recognize the full humanity of their ancestors,” Harris said.
Students launched a GoFundMe to raise money for Saturday’s teach-in and ongoing political education campaign.
The funds will also be used to compensate those fighting for the name change, who are mostly Black women. Students will receive a stipend and educators leading learning circles at Saturday’s launch will be compensated. Harris said it is an important acknowledgement that feminized labor of education and community-building is too often taken for granted.
“If there is a way for us to compensate work, specifically social justice work, without framing it in a purely capitalistic framework, then we want to make sure we’re doing that,” Harris said.
The renewed campaign to strip Stephen Douglas’ name from the park comes amid a nationwide push to end the glorification of white supremacists in textbooks, public art and statues.
Since the police killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, protesters and policymakers have demanded governments remove flags and statues celebrating the Confederacy.
The reimagined campaign will call on the city to name the park in honor of Frederick Douglass as well as his wife, Anna Murray-Douglass.
Murray-Douglass also was an abolitionist who established a station on the Underground Railroad in her home in Rochester, New York. As a woman born free, she also facilitated Douglass’ escape from slavery by giving him money, supplies and a disguise.
The team behind the campaign said failing to acknowledge Murray-Douglass’ contributions would continue the history of erasing the accomplishments of Black women who have carried on their backs the social movements for civil rights.
“A lot of the labor, that goes unrecognized. It’s invisible,” Harris said. “Often we know that the work and the voices of Black women have historically been omitted.”
The new campaign will also take on the silence around violence against women.
Students initially approached local leaders with the idea to name the park after Rekia Boyd, an unarmed Black woman who an off-duty police offer killed in 2012. The officer was acquitted in Boyd’s death.
The idea evolved into renaming the park for Douglass since it it seemed like an easier ask for the Park District.
But the students are now demanding the creation of a playground within Douglass Park memorializing Boyd and her death at the hands of anti-Black police violence.
The launch event will kick off a political education campaign with learning circles where community members can learn about the students’ demands. The learning circles will also educate community members about the history of the students’ fight to rename the park, the Park District’s bureaucratic name-changing process and the historical figures that get memorialized by the city.
“I think that we definitely should talk about the history of Frederick Douglass,” said Zari Young, 14, an alumna of Village Leadership Academy. “I think we should talk about the name of Douglas Park so people can express their opinions of why they think Stephen Douglas was named instead of someone else.”
Young people will help teach at the teach-ins, and the intergenerational approach to learning will make the entire campaign stronger, Zari said.
The launch will also be a cookout where residents can get free food, personal protective equipment, masks, feminine hygiene products and other resources.
“We want it to be celebratory, but we also want it to be about political education,” Harris said. “We hope to also inspire other youth and want people to leave feeling empowered.”
The campaign relaunch to rename Douglass Park will be 2 p.m.-5 p.m. Saturday at Douglas Park, 1401 S. Sacramento Drive.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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