No one in Chicago would seriously consider renaming State Street. It is this “Great Street”, celebrated in song. It is an integral part of the Chicago brand to the world.
No one would seriously consider renaming Madison Street either, if only because State and Madison go together like salt and pepper. The intersection of State and Madison is the starting point for Chicago’s entire road network.
In the same small category of iconic Chicago street names that should be left alone, we’d include Lake Shore Drive, the perfect name for this glorious sliver of road that dazzles tourists and Chicagoans alike. Lake Shore Drive should remain Lake Shore Drive – an advertisement for our town every time the name is spoken – although we appreciate the arguments of those who want to rename it Jean Baptiste Point DuSable.
The most important point — that the contributions of black people in Chicago have been understated and consciously suppressed in local histories for far too long — is absolutely true. And we agree with those who want to do more to honor DuSable, a black man who was the city’s first non-Indigenous permanent settler.
We support Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposals to honor DuSable with new investments in a park east of Lake Shore Drive, and with monuments and programs on the Riverwalk. As the mayor says, it would be “something that helps teach the legacy of DuSable and his wife that goes far beyond a name change.”
We’d also rather find a more eye-catching way to honor DuSable, like maybe renaming the Dan Ryan Highway or the Edens Highway for him. Dan Ryan was chairman of Cook County Council. William G. Edens, a banker who ran the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, never even owned or drove a car.
A debate on history
The crux of the matter, however, is that the ongoing debate in Chicago over DuSable and Lake Shore Drive isn’t really about street names. It’s about the need for Chicago, as for our nation as a whole, to insist on a more honest accounting of its history, across all color lines. What is at stake is how we think about the places we live in and how we see ourselves in those places.
Our children – all of our children – should be told about DuSable, the Chicago Riots of 1919, the Great Migration and Emmett Till, just as they should be told about the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma that took place 100 years ago. years this week.
“It was a massacre – among the worst in our history, but not the only one,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday in Tulsa. “And too long forgotten in our history. As soon as it happened, there was an obvious effort to erase it from our memory – from our collective memories.
All hidden stories should no longer be hidden.
DuSable and the 1933 World’s Fair
This is nothing new, certainly not in Chicago, where the struggle to bring attention to black contributions goes back generations. As most of us know DuSable today, for example, it’s because a small group of African-American leaders lobbied 90 years ago for the inclusion of a dedicated pavilion to Black Achievements at the Century of Progress, Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair.
“The stands would show the progress of all Africans and descendants,” Walter Thomas Bailey, a Chicago architect, wrote to the organizers of the fair in 1930. “We are very eager to teach the world some of the interesting history of the black people long before the first slave ship ever landed in this country.
What the organizers of the fair said no to.
“It doesn’t sound very interesting to me and it contains elements of considerable danger,” one of the planners wrote in an internal memo – even as the group moved forward with plans for a mock Southern Plantation. and an exhibition of stereotypical, warlike stomps. , shirtless pygmies.
After four years of resistance, however, fair organizers have finally agreed to something less ambitious: a replica of DuSable’s cabin, which will be hidden away at the south end of the fair, near Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. The cabin was an idea pushed by Bailey, the Chicago Urban League and the National DuSable Memorial Society, led by African-American educator Annie E. Oliver.
DuSable’s cabin proved to be a “notable attraction” at the fair, writes Chicago architecture critic Lee Bey (now a Sun-Times editorial board member) in the 2005 book “Chicago Architecture,” edited by Charles Waldheim and Katerina Ruedi Ray. . “The work of the DuSable Society sparked interest in DuSable and its role as the city’s first settler. The group then launched a campaign after the fair to get a school named DuSable, which resulted in what is now DuSable High School in Bronzeville.
Every now and then Chicago gets something perfect. The city flag, for starters. And maybe the bean. And certainly Lake Shore Drive.
We wouldn’t want to change them.
But when it comes to how we tell Chicago’s story fully and fairly, we have a ways to go.
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