NORTH LAWNDALE — The Chicago Park District could move Wednesday to change the name of Stephen Douglas Park to Frederick Douglass Park, a long-awaited renaming that could signal a tide of change as officials assess the statues, parks and street names honoring racists and other controversial figures in the city.
Students in North Lawndale have lobbied the city to rename the West Side park for years but have been met with silence. Just days after protesters tried to pull down the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park, organizers were told late Tuesday — by Block Club — that the measure is finally being considered by the city.
The Park District called a special board meeting for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday to consider the issue. If approved, the motion will kick off a process to officially rename the park for Frederick Douglass — a Black hero who escaped slavery to become a national leader in the abolitionist movement — after a 45-day public comment period.
She also said destroying statues wasn’t the answer.
In 2017, Lawndale students attending Village Leadership Academy learned the park they loved to play in memorialized Stephen A. Douglas, a Civil War-era Illinois senator and one of the country’s most notorious slavery advocates. A park in a neighborhood that’s about 90 percent Black shouldn’t memorialize a white supremacist, they reasoned.
Over the past three years, the students gathered thousands of signatures. They argued before the Chicago Park District board. They made a formal proposal. The petition was ignored, their pleas were unacknowledged and the proposal went unanswered.
It isn’t clear what moved the wheels of bureaucracy now after the student’s pleas were ignored again and again. But Jennifer Pagan, a teacher helping the students in their campaign, said she is concerned the sudden shift is a politically convenient one. No one informed her about the planned vote, she said.
“I’m honestly very wary of them using us as a ‘victory’ or a ‘win’ after a weekend where people were brutalized for trying to take down the Columbus statue. I really want to leverage this moment to call attention to the fact that these fights are connected and one in the same,” Pagan said.
The fight to change the name of Douglas Park is directly linked to the fight to tear down the Columbus statue in Grant Park, Pagan said.
“All of these are really just a call and demand to end white supremacy,” she said. “I think the reason they continue to ignore us is if we change the name of this park, then that calls to helm all the rest of them.”
Earlier this year, an anonymous artist grew tired of waiting on the city to right the historical wrong and painted an extra “S” on all signs on the park. But the name officially remains Douglas Park.
The students relaunched their campaign to rename the park at a teach-in Saturday as momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement picked up steam after police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The new campaign includes broader demands that the city stop enshrining white supremacists in North Lawndale and beyond. The students now want the park named for two people — Frederick Douglass and his wife, Anna Murray Douglass.
“We need justice for our community,” said student Aryn Peterson. “So I think this was a really good time to bring awareness to it, because everybody is very involved with Black Lives Matter. … They’ll have more empathy towards our campaign.”
“Changing the name on a park sign is a symbolic victory, but removing all statues, landmarks that pay tribute to white supremacy demands more courage and accountability on part of city officials,” Pagan said.
‘In A Bureaucracy, Things Take Time’
At Saturday’s teach-in, students and educators from Village Leadership Academy led learning circles to inform the community about their years-long push to rename the park.
According to the district’s renaming process, a proposal must have backing from community residents, organizations and elected officials. Once a formal request for a new name is submitted, the city may open up 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.
The students have long had the support of local politicians, including Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), who lives near the park.
Douglas is probably best-known for taking part in debates with Abraham Lincoln and arguing African American people — then called Negroes, the alderman noted — were not equal to white men. While Lincoln opposed slavery outright, Douglas pushed to allow states to decide for themselves whether to permit it. Douglas defeated Lincoln in the Senate race of 1858, but lost to Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election.
Douglas is not known to have personally owned slaves, but his wife owned at least 100, according to historians. And by supporting a state’s right to decide to uphold slavery, many historians consider Douglas to have de facto endorsed the institution.
In stark contrast, Frederick Douglass was a thought leader, an orator and statesman who was born an enslaved person. He escaped bondage with the help of abolitionist Anna Murray Douglass. They later married and the pair operated a station on the underground railroad from their home in Rochester, New York.
Scott has wanted the park renamed for some time.
“He wasn’t an opponent of slavery. He wasn’t an abolitionist. He also thought less of [African Americans] than any other race,” Scott said of Douglas. “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.”
The students have attended several Park District board meetings to make their case for changing the name. Their petition demanding the park be renamed has collected nearly 10,000 signatures.
“We’ve also done a lot of train takeovers through North Lawndale. We’ve been giving people flyers and cards, telling them to contact us and come to Douglas Park to learn more about their history,” Peterson said.
Students first addressed the board in June 2017, where they asked the city to get on the right side of history by renaming the park. But the board offered no response to the proposal at the meeting.
Students also hand-delivered a copy of the formal proposal to the board in December 2019. The district never opened the 45-day comment window.
Park District officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in February, a spokesperson claimed they never received any request for Douglas Park to be renamed.
Scott said he completely understands people might be “dissatisfied” with the city’s process.
“The city is a bureaucracy, and in a bureaucracy, things take time,” Scott said. “I believe that at the end of the day, this effort will be successful because of the community support as well as the elected officials who support this project.”
The fight is about more than just a name, Pagan said. The survival of statues and parks honoring racists despite every effort to remove them show the systems designed to give voice to the people have continually failed Black people in Chicago.
“The fact that young folks are demanding that a park name be changed is directly related to the fact that this community has been disinvested,” Pagan said. “It’s directly related to the fact that white supremacy is weaponized to create boundaries … that do not allow people to participate and engage in ways that actually change systems.”
Read more of Block Club’s Columbus protest coverage here.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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