In Chicago, a couple of aldermen want to rename a street that honors an Italian aviator who was a fascist.
Across the American South, the president of the United States wants everybody to keep their hands off dozens of “beautiful” Confederate statues and monuments.
Here’s hoping Chicago thinks things through in a way the president never does. At a time when so many Americans are challenging historical myths, even as others like Donald Trump remain in denial, Chicago should welcome a full and civil debate about the appropriateness of a few of its own historical markers, including Balbo Drive.
As a city, we should be unafraid to put history on trial.
As columnist Mike Sneed reported Wednesday, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and Ald. Ed Burke (14th) want to do away with the name Balbo Drive because it honors Italo Balbo, an Italian Air Force marshal who famously made the first trans-Atlantic flight from Rome to Chicago. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even invited Balbo to lunch. But the celebrated aviator — and herein lies the problem for that street sign — was a blackshirt leader who helped bring fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to power.
The aldermen also want the Park District to pull down from a pedestal an old Roman column, some 2,000 years old, that was a gift to the city from Mussolini.
How these issues ultimately are resolved seems secondary, at this stage, to the need for an honest and respectful debate. We’d love to see the City Council host a thoughtful public hearing, inviting historians and other experts to testify. We’d like to hear in particular from Italian-Americans, who we are sure are not all of one mind on this issue. Exactly who and what are we honoring with that street sign and column?
Chicago inevitably will come up against this sort of thing again, and nothing good comes of looking the other way. That may be the single greatest lesson from more than a century of racially divisive Southern mythologizing of the “lost cause” of the Civil War — the truth of history, though often hard to know, should never be denied.
Today in Chicago, Villegas, Burke and others are questioning the appropriateness of Balbo Drive and the Roman column in Grant Park. Tomorrow, other critics might object to the statue of Sen. Stephen A. Douglas — a defender of slavery — above his tomb on 35th Street or the Confederate Mound memorial in Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side.
Just two months ago, a group of fifth-grade Chicago school children proposed an excellent idea to rename Douglas Park on the West Side as Douglass Park — note the extra “s.” As currently named, the park honors Stephen A. Douglas. The newly named park would honor abolitionist Frederick Douglass. What a better message that would send to the children, mostly African-American and Latino, who play in the park.
A great city, like a great country, should be unafraid to confront reality, historical or otherwise. As President George W. Bush said at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”
What will happen with Balbo Drive, we can’t say. Let’s talk it out. But if and when there is a name change, we already know we can’t agree with Burke’s suggested new name: Kennelly Drive.
Why rename a street for a so-so Irish-American mayor, Martin H. Kennelly, when you could go with a superb Italian-American cardinal, Joseph Bernardin?
That’s ethnic pride at its best.
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