NORTH LAWNDALE — After years of activism from West Side youth, the Chicago Park District formally stripped Stephen A. Douglas’ name from the park split between the North and South Lawndale neighborhoods.
The 173-acre park is temporarily named Park 218 after the district board unanimously voted Wednesday to remove the name commemorating the Civil War-era U.S. senator.
The move now launches a public comment process to rename the park, which is all but certain to be called Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass Park.
Students of Village Leadership Academy began fighting to rename the park in 2017. It is the first time a historical figure’s name has ever been removed from park to make way for a new name.
The new name memorializing the Douglasses legacy of abolition will be a reminder to “remember past mistakes, not honor them,” student Kirk Kelly said.
“It’s going to take a lot more after us to get rid of the worshiped memory of S. Douglas, to stop the world from glorifying the immorality of history,” Kelly said.
The students began their campaign after learning the largest park in the predominantly Black neighborhood of North Lawndale did not honor the famed abolitionist, as many of them assumed, but rather 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’s wife is known to have owned at least 100 slaves, and by supporting a state’s right to decide to uphold slavery, Douglas is considered to have de facto endorsed it.
In stark contrast to the park’s previous namesake, Douglass was a thought leader, an orator and statesman who was born into slavery. He escaped bondage with the help of abolitionist Murray Douglass. The pair later married and operated a station on the Underground Railroad from their home in Rochester, N.Y.
Though the students’ initial proposal in 2017 focused on only honoring Douglass, the organizers relaunched their campaign over the summer and expanded their demands to include Murray Douglass.
“Without the help of Anna, Frederick may have still been enslaved and wouldn’t have achieved the accomplishments he is known for today,” student Jasmine Johnson said.
Organizers and supporters also said they wanted to recognize the accomplishments of Murray Douglass since Black women are often overlooked and unacknowledged for their work in social movements.
“It was Anna’s example as an abolitionist, a free Black woman, and a financial supporter that inspired Frederick Douglass to become the statesman that we know,” said Sheila McNairy of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council. “History has not been kind to Anna. It is time to right the wrongs of history.”
In the three years since the campaign began, students canvassed the neighborhood to raise awareness and launched a political education series to teach residents about the history of the Douglasses. Their petition demanding the park be renamed collected more than 10,000 signatures.
They also collected letters of support from county commissioners and Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), who had been trying to get the name changed since he served as the park supervisor.
“I want to thank them for not giving up,” Scott said. “A lot of times when we get into a political process or a bureaucracy, oftentimes we give up because we don’t get the results we want when we want it. But they did not relent.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.