In praise of the kids behind the renaming of a Chicago park

The Chicago Park District board flubbed badly by not giving credit where credit is due for the changing a park’s name to rightfully honor Frederick Douglass.

SHARE In praise of the kids behind the renaming of a Chicago park
A group of students and staff at Village Leadership Academy have been petitioning to change the name of Douglas Park to honor Frederick Douglass and his wife Anne Murray-Douglass.

The Chicago Park District should have acknowledged the students and staff at Village Leadership Academy who successfully petitioned for a renaming of Stephen A. Douglas Park.

Provided by Dayo Harris

The Chicago Park District board did the right thing last week when it decided to rename a West Side park in honor of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

But the board flubbed the moment when it failed to single out for credit students from Village Leadership Academy, 800 S. Wells St., who had been petitioning the district since 2016 to rename the park — formerly Stephen A. Douglas Park — for Frederick Douglass.

The kids, before anybody else, made it happen.

The park district should have set aside time for the students to take a few bows at the July 22 board meeting. But, strangely enough, the board did not even allow the students to speak. The kids were given no advance notice that the renaming would be on the agenda.

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“It seems like an intentional political choice on the part of the board of commissioners not to include us in this larger meeting,” Jennifer Pagán, a former Village Leadership Academy teacher who remained involved in the name-change effort, told the Sun-times’ Clare Proctor. “They knew that our demands extend past just a name change and that we really are calling for an end to all white supremacist monuments, statues and landmarks throughout the city.”

For years, the students and others had demanded a new name for Douglas Park, located at 14th Street and Sacramento Drive in the predominantly Black neighborhood of North Lawndale. Douglas, a slave-owning Illinois U.S. senator who lost to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, had defended slavery as a matter for the individual states to decide.

“It is time to right the wrongs of history and reclaim our public space,” Sheila McNary, a member of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, said at the park district board meeting. “We also recommit ourselves to racial and social justice, our commitment to social equity.”

Park district officials say the next step in the renaming process is a 45-day public comment period. And, after that, here’s how the park district can make amends for slighting the Village Academy students:

At the inevitable ceremony marking the installation of the new Frederick Douglass Park signs, the district should set aside time to honor those who made the change happen. And the students of Village Leadership Academy should stand front and center.

In recent weeks, we’ve witnessed noisier and faster ways to bring about important symbolic changes like this. But the kids took the patient, democratic route — and won.

They should be celebrated.

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