CHICAGO — Citing Stephen Douglas’ racist past, the Park District has moved to rename Douglas Park for Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
In a special meeting Wednesday, the Chicago Park District Board voted unanimously to move forward with the process to rename the West Side park for Frederick Douglass, opening up a 45-day comment period for Chicagoans to weigh in.
The long-awaited renaming could signal a tide of change as officials assess other statues, parks and street names honoring racists and controversial figures in the city.
In 2017, West Side youth began asking the city to rename their neighborhood park to honor abolitionist Frederick Douglass instead of slavery advocate Stephen Douglas. A park in a neighborhood that’s about 90 percent Black shouldn’t memorialize a white supremacist, they reasoned.
For three years, the city largely ignored their efforts.
But just days after protesters tried to pull down the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park, the Park District called an emergency meeting to consider renaming Douglas Park.
Park District Board President Avis LaVelle said the park’s name will be renamed for Frederick Douglass after the 45-day window thanks to the work of the youth and the support from residents.
“This community has made their voice loud and clear,” LaVelle said. “And they have put in the work to have that done.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the park’s renaming is part of a “larger initiative” her office will be announcing soon “to address our racial history and past, to take account and inventory of what exists in the city and sister agencies to memorialize our past but also account for what’s missing.”
“I’ll reveal more in the coming days, but I do think this is an important step,” she said, praising the students who fought for this change.
The vote is historic, LaVelle said, because no park in the city named for a historical figure has ever had its current name stripped by the board. The district’s current process was instead designed for communities to name an unnamed park.
The board will move to rename Douglas Park in a two-step process that will first establish a precedent for stripping the name of a historical figure from a park based on community input. Simultaneously, the district will initiate a second 45-day process to evaluate the new proposed name.
“It will be done and we have heard you. But what we want to do today is create a thoughtful, deliberative process for future considerations because we don’t feel like this will be the last request to come before this body,” LaVelle said.
The park’s is current namesake Stephen A. Douglas was a Civil War-era Illinois senator and one of the country’s most notorious slavery advocates. Douglas’ wife was known to have owned at least 100 slaves according to historians. In 1858, Douglas famously debated Abraham Lincoln in support of allowing expanded slavery across U.S. territories.
In stark contrast, Frederick Douglass was a thought leader, an orator and statesman who born into slavery. He escaped bondage with the help of abolitionist Anna Murray Douglass, who became his wife. The pair operated a station on the underground railroad from their home in Rochester, N.Y.
Students of Village Leadership Academy in North Lawndale 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, but the park district board did not acknowledge it and didn’t open the public comment period — until now.
It isn’t clear what moved the wheels of bureaucracy now after the student’s pleas fell on deaf ears 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.
Just days before Wednesday’s meeting, students held a teach-in at the park to relaunch their campaign to change the park’s name.
Students at the teach-in spoke to community members about the city’s process for requesting a name change, and how they’d followed it to the letter: In 2017 they began canvassing the neighborhood to raise awareness and got letters of support from county commissioners and local aldermen. 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,” student Aryn Peterson said at the teach-in.
The teach-in also gave young people an opportunity to educate the community on the histories of Stephen Douglas, Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass.
Lightfoot also said destroying statues wasn’t the answer.
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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