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Lake Shore Drive, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable and Chicago history

Chicago’s ongoing debate about renaming Lake Shore Drive is not really about street names. It’s about the need for Chicago, like our nation, to insist on a more honest accounting of history.

Jean Baptiste Point DuSable
Sun-Times Library file

Nobody in Chicago would seriously consider renaming State Street. It’s that “Great Street,” celebrated in song. It is integral to Chicago’s brand around the world.

Nobody would seriously consider renaming Madison Street, either, if only because State and Madison go together like salt and pepper. The intersection of State and Madison is the starting point for Chicago’s entire street grid.

In the same small category of iconic Chicago street names that should be left alone we would include Lake Shore Drive, the perfect name for that glorious ribbon of road that dazzles tourists and life-long Chicagoans alike. Lake Shore Drive should remain Lake Shore Drive — an advertisement for our town every time the name is spoken — though we appreciate the arguments of those who want to rename it for Jean Baptiste Point DuSable.

The larger point — that the contributions of Black people in Chicago have been underplayed and consciously suppressed in local histories for way too long — is entirely true. And we agree with those who want to do more to honor DuSable, a Black man who was the city’s first non-indigenous permanent settler.

We favor Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposals to honor DuSable with new investments in a park east of Lake Shore Drive, and with monuments and programming on the Riverwalk. As the mayor says, this would be “something that helps teach about the legacy of DuSable and his wife that goes way past a name change.”

We also favor finding a more attention-grabbing way to honor DuSable, such as perhaps renaming the Dan Ryan Expressway or Edens Expressway for him. Dan Ryan was a Cook County Board president. William G. Edens, a banker who headed the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, never even owned or drove a car.

A debate about history

The heart of the matter, though, is that Chicago’s ongoing debate about DuSable and Lake Shore Drive is not really about street names. It’s about the need for Chicago, like our nation as a whole, to insist on a more honest accounting of its history, across all color lines. At stake is how we think about the places where we live, and how we see ourselves in those places.

Our children — all our children — should be taught about DuSable, the 1919 Chicago riots, the Great Migration and Emmett Till, just as they should be taught about the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that took place 100 years ago this week.

“This was a massacre — among the worst in our history, but not the only one,” President Joe Biden said in Tulsa on Tuesday. “And for too long, forgotten by our history. As soon as it happened there was a clear effort to erase it from our memory — our collective memories.”

All the hidden stories should be hidden no more.

DuSable and the 1933 World’s Fair

There is nothing new in this, certainly not in Chicago, where the struggle to call attention to the contributions of Black people goes back generations. To the extent that most of us today know about DuSable at all, for example, it’s because a small group of African American leaders pushed hard 90 years ago for the inclusion of a pavilion dedicated to Black achievement at the Century of Progress, Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair.

“Booths would show progress of all Africans and descendants,” Walter Thomas Bailey, a Chicago architect, wrote to the fair’s planners in 1930. “We are very anxious to teach the world some of the interesting history of the Black People long before the first boat of slaves ever landed in this country.”

To which the fair’s planners said hell no.

“It does not strike me as offering much of interest and it contains elements of considerable danger,” one of the planners wrote in an internal memo — even as the group moved ahead with plans for a mock Southern plantation and an exhibit of stereotypical stomping, warlike, bare-chested pygmies.

After four years of resistance, however, the fair’s organizers did finally agree to something less ambitious: A replica of DuSable’s cabin, to be tucked away on the fair’s south end, close to Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. The cabin was an idea pushed by Bailey, the Chicago Urban League and the National DuSable Memorial Society, which was led by the African American educator Annie E. Oliver.

DuSable’s cabin turned out to be a “notable attraction” at the fair, writes Chicago architecture critic Lee Bey (now a member of the Sun-Times editorial board) in the 2005 book “Chicago Architecture,” edited by Charles Waldheim and Katerina Ruedi Ray. “The DuSable Society’s work sparked an interest in DuSable and his role as the city’s first settler. The group then began a campaign after the fair to get a school named for DuSable, resulting in the current DuSable High School in Bronzeville.”

Getting history right

Once in awhile, Chicago gets something exactly right. The city flag, for one. And maybe the Bean. And definitely Lake Shore Drive.

We wouldn’t want to change them.

But when it comes to how we tell Chicago’s history, fully and fairly, we’ve got a ways to go.

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