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Wrangling over street renaming puts African-American aldermen on the hot seat

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery and became a leader in the struggle against racism. | Sun-Times files

It should not be this difficult for the City of Chicago to honor anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells.

After all, the movement to build a monument honoring the civil rights icon has grown beyond Chicago.

Journalists in New York and Washington D.C. are now lending their voices to this effort.

Although fundraising for a monument has dragged on for years, a new momentum is pushing that project forward.

OPINION

I recently attended a fundraiser in Bronzeville and was pleasantly surprised to see the venue packed and people lining up to donate.

And I recently I got a note from Michelle Duster, Wells’ great-granddaughter. Duster said she hopes the monument will be completed next year.

What an accomplishment. It has always been Duster’s desire that Wells’ contributions be celebrated in a public space.

Meanwhile, the sudden interest in Wells’ legacy is putting the Chicago City Council on the spot.

An ordinance introduced by Alds. Sophia King (4th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) that would rename Balbo Drive for Ida B. Wells was held up in committee last week.

“There are still issues that they are working out. We are hopeful this is going to happen,” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chair of the council’s Transportation Committee.

Obviously, a debate about taking down a street sign honoring an Italian who is considered a hero by some and a fascist collaborator by others is going to be controversial.

But no one can argue that Wells, an American suffragist, civil rights icon and anti-lynching crusader, who raised her family in Chicago, is not deserving of having a major street named in her honor.

The question is whether African-American aldermen can make that case on Well’s behalf, without alienating Italian-Americans.

“We are adamant about Ida B. Wells, but we are considering whether it should be Balbo or another street just as significant or more significant,” King told me.

I’ve always been in total awe of Wells’ legacy.

She was fearless.

Wells knew when she exposed the lies white people told about lynching that she was putting her life at risk — and she did it anyway.

One of Wells’ articles about lynching resulted in a white mob destroying her printing equipment and warning her that she would be killed if she returned to her home in Memphis.

But what about Italo Balbo?

Besides leading an squadron of airplanes across the Atlantic on a flight to Chicago’s Century of Progress world’s fair in 1933, Balbo is credited with playing a decisive role in developing Benito Mussolini’s air force.

Italian aviator Italo Balbo and his crew salute at Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair. | File photo
Italian aviator Italo Balbo and his crew salute at Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair. | File photo

“What I think is important is the fact that Italian and African-Americans marched against Balbo’s heralded flight to Chicago. Italians here were hearing back from their families in Italy about some of the atrocities he was unleashing on his own people,” King said.

Because no group has the right to choose another group’s hero, it is up to the Italian-American community to decide whether it still makes sense to honor Balbo.

Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans, is against scrubbing Balbo’s name from the downtown street.

In May, DiFrisco publicly railed against the ordinance and vowed to run a candidate against Reilly in retaliation for his support of the renaming.

Even so, King isn’t backing down.

“We didn’t arrive at this decision lightly. We have been talking to groups of people for more than a year, including folks from the League of Women Voters who recognize Well’s contribution to the woman’s suffrage movement,” she said.

“In Illinois, we got the vote 10 years before the amendment [to the U.S. Constitution] passed because of women like Ida B. Wells,” King told me.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

I was honored by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans in May, where I said I hoped this issue could be resolved with causing further racial divisions.

I am still hoping for a compromise.

But it is up to African-American aldermen to make sure Ida B. Wells gets her due.

If they can’t get this done, it would say a lot about their power—none of it good.