In 1852, journalist Frederick Law Olmsted began a long journey through the South to report on conditions there. As the Civil War unfolded, many in the North and in Great Britain turned to Olmsted’s writings — he depicted a slave economy that was doomed — to understand the Confederacy.
One wonders what Olmsted — more famous for his second career as America’s great landscape architect — would have made of the current debate about honoring President Barack Obama within an Olmsted park.
Would he have blanched at the thought of building a presidential library on park grounds? Or would he have been so astonished at the election of a black president that he found it reasonable to dedicate five percent of the park to house the man’s library?
The young among us today, many of them, will grow up believing anyone can become president, regardless of race. But some of us can remember when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate was not equal; some are old enough to have Marched on Washington. Those events signaled the end of legal segregation in this country. But we never dreamed we would see a man of African heritage elected president — not in our lifetimes.
This “major turning point in American history,” as historian Eric Foner described Obama’s election, represents an unprecedented achievement by this country. In particular, it stands as a testament to the rich culture and history of Chicago. For we cannot for a moment think that Obama chose to launch his political career on the South Side by accident.
Harvard-educated though he might be, Obama flung himself into the heart of urban black America when he moved here. As a politician, he sprang from the same South Side that gave us Harold Washington and the Chicago Defender, Mahalia Jackson and Richard Wright. Obama’s achievement could not have happened without the achievements of those who came before him.
An achievement of this significance deserves to be memorialized in a prominent public place — in a historic setting. A majestic park designed by America’s greatest landscape architect is a fitting place to honor such a watershed event.
It is odd to hear people who have no connection to the South Side rail against the idea of putting Obama’s Presidential Library in a South Side park. Lincoln Park on the North Side holds a zoo, not to mention a nature museum named after the wife of a wealthy telecom executive. Yet, for some reason, using a small amount of parkland for the library of our nation’s first African-American president is viewed as a shocking encroachment. Why?
On Election Night, 2008, Barack Obama stood on stage in Grant Park and acknowledged the epochal change that his election signaled. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” he said.
Let us honor the magnitude of this event — an achievement in which all Chicagoans and especially all South Siders share — by dedicating a small portion of our public space to its memory.
Leon Finney is CEO of Woodlawn Community Development Corporation and Pastor of the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church. This essay was posted at the Huffington Post.