Congress Parkway renamed Ida B. Wells Drive to honor civil rights champion

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When Congress Parkway gets its new name, this will become the intersection of Wells Street and Ida B. Wells Drive. | Matthew Hendrickson/Sun-Times

The Chicago Department of Transportation’s inundated sign shop is notoriously backlogged. But a new request likely will move to the head of the line: “Ida B. Wells Drive.”

The City Council made it happen Wednesday, providing a long-overdue recognition for the civil rights icon, journalist and anti-lynching crusader who helped Illinois women win the right to vote ten years before their counterparts across the nation.

Congress Parkway will be renamed between Columbus Drive and the point where it merges with the Eisenhower Expressway.

Supporters of the change held a news conference at City Hall before the final vote.

Michelle Duster, Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter, welcomed the City Council’s vote at a press conference Wednesday. | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times

Michelle Duster, Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter, welcomed the City Council’s vote at a press conference Wednesday. | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times

“My great-grandmother will now be remembered for the woman she was and the contributions she made to our country,” said Michelle Duster, Wells’ great-granddaughter.

That legacy was reinforced in her home as she was growing up, Duster added.

“We were always taught that everybody was important … and I think that came from our great-grandmother. She was an international figure, so she interacted with a lot of the luminaries of her time. But she also went out into the streets. She would treat the homeless, or people who had other issues, with the same level of dignity.”

One of the sponsors of the measure, Ald. Sophia King (4th), praised Wells on the floor of the Council Wednesday, calling her “a phenomenal woman — kind of the original boss — who put life and limb at risk” to champion the cause of civil rights.

Renaming Congress was a fallback compromise from the original, resurrected proposal to rename Balbo Drive.

King and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who joined forces on the Balbo proposal, accepted the Congress compromise to avoid a divisive confrontation with Italian-Americans who didn’t want to see the street name stripped from Italo Balbo.

Italo Balbo was an Italian Air Force Marshal famous for making the first transatlantic crossing from Rome to Chicago and helping to bring Mussolini to power in 1922.

“We’re very grateful. That’s a great solution to the dilemma. It leaves Balbo intact,” Italian-American leader Dominic DiFrisco said last month.

“We did not want to deny Ida B. Wells the honor she deserves. But, Balbo deserves the recognition he was given in 1933 confirmed by every mayor since. Charlatan historians were beginning to raise incredibly erroneous facts about Balbo. The Italian-American community can now breathe a great sigh of relief.”

Congress is a lighter lift politically because it strips a widely-despised institution — the U.S. Congress — of the honor and because there are only “six-to-nine” impacted street addresses, including Roosevelt University, Robert Morris University and a building at Columbia College.

“I think we would all argue that nobody is looking to protect the word Congress these days. Ida B. Wells is certainly more popular than the members of Congress,” Reilly said Wednesday.

But, King has openly acknowledged that she wanted more and had to settle for second-best.

“It is bittersweet, honestly, to know that we are just [now] naming a street downtown after a woman and or a person of color. Ida was a boss, as my kid would say,” King said Wednesday.

“Ida B. Wells’ legacy speaks for itself. We are happy to play a small part in placing her in the fabric of our city’s downtown. … It is whole-heartedly deserved, and, I must say, long overdue,” she added.

“For those who are bringing up the small fact that there is a Wells Street and an Ida B. Wells Drive, they obviously have never been to Atlanta, where there’s a Peach Way, Peach Drive, Peach Avenue, Peach whatever. I think we can figure it out. I for one will be calling it Ida Drive.”

King also thanked Reilly for understanding the “historical significance of what it means to have a street, not only named after a woman, but a person of color.”

Contributing: Adam Thorp

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