North Lawndale’s major park no longer bears the name of a former slave owner.
After more than three years of students pushing to rename the park, the Chicago Park District Board voted Wednesday to remove the name Stephen Douglas from the park. The park district will remove signs displaying the former name starting Thursday at 8 a.m., said spokeswoman Michele Lemons, with plans to have all signs removed within a week.
The board also opened a second 45-day public comment period to seek input on the park’s new name. Students from Village Leadership Academy, who’ve pushed their Change the Name campaign since 2016, want the park to bear the names of Anna and Frederick Douglass.
Jazzmin Johnson, a Village Leadership Academy student and campaign organizer, said Frederick Douglass might have remained a slave if not for the help and planning of his first wife, Anna Murray-Douglass.
Sheila McNary, executive member of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, echoed the push to honor Anna Murray-Douglass.
“It was Anna’s example of an abolitionist, a free Black woman and a financial supporter that inspired Frederick Douglass to become the statesman that we know,” McNary said. “It is time to right the wrongs of history and reclaim our public space by renaming the park after Anna and Frederick Douglass.”
Board Vice President Tim King said the park district and public might consider renaming the park solely after Anna Murray-Douglass, noting she has often been “overshadowed” by her husband.
The board had voted in July to begin the process of removing Stephen Douglas’ name from the park; that kicked off an initial 45-day pubic comment period. Douglas, a U.S. senator from Illinois, owned slaves and lost to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. The park, 1401 S. Sacramento Dr., was named after him in 1869.
Of 138 comments the park district received, development director Heather Gleeson said 136 favored removing Stephen Douglas’ name.
Students from Village Leadership Academy, 800 S. Wells St., have poured hours into canvassing, gathering petition signatures and attending board meetings as they pushed for the name change, said Jennifer Pagán, a former teacher at the school and part of the name-change campaign since 2018.
What really caused the board to act, Pagán said, is the “sustained” civil disobedience of students and organizers.
“This is a symbolic victory in the fight to end white supremacy,” Pagán said. “It should not be disguised as progress in a city that prioritizes profit over people.”
Board President Avis LaVelle credits the “grit” and “determination” of student organizers for the name change.
Village Leadership Academy students started their name-change effort in 2016, originally proposing the park honor Rekia Boyd, who was shot and killed in 2012 by an off-duty police officer. After encouragement from local leaders to choose a more historically prominent figure, they began pushing for the Douglasses.
Village Leadership Academy Principal Dayo Harris said the students’ campaign has been “inspiring.” She said the students and other youth organizers need to “rightfully demand” a better society.
“The obligation of anyone who thinks of themselves as responsible is to examine that society and to try to change it and to fight against it, no matter the risk,” Harris said. “This is the only hope society has and the only way it changes.”