North Lawndale’s Douglas Park will soon get a new name.
The Chicago Park District board voted unanimously at a special meeting Wednesday to begin the process of changing the West Side park’s name to commemorate abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery and became a well-known speaker and author, advocating for equality and human rights.
“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 Wednesday’s meeting. “We also recommit ourselves to racial and social justice, our commitment to social equity.”
Next is a 45-day public comment period to ensure the new name has public support.
“We have not ever stripped the name of a historical figure from a park and replaced it with someone else, which, in this instance, I don’t have a problem with that,” said board President Avis LaVelle.
The board decided on a two-step process, separating the vote to remove the objectionable name from the vote for a new name.
Still, at the meeting, LaVelle said commissioners “know” the park will be renamed after Frederick Douglass, given the community has already spoken in favor.
Earlier this year, an anonymous artist painted an extra “S” on a Douglas Park sign, McNary told the Sun-Times.
Proponents have pushed the name change for years. Current namesake Stephen Douglas, a U.S. senator from Illinois, owned slaves and lost to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. The park at 1401 S. Sacramento Dr. was named after him in 1869.
The park district meeting comes just days after protesters tried to topple the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park. Separately, members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus have called for the removal of a statue of Douglas from his tomb in Bronzeville, Earlier this month, the University of Chicago removed two tributes to Douglas. Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan has also called for removing memorials to Douglas in the state capitol.
Students from Village Leadership Academy, 800 S. Wells St., have advocated to rename the park since 2016. Their original suggestion was to honor Rekiya Boyd, who was shot and killed in 2012 by an off-duty police officer. Local officials encouraged the students to pick a more historically prominent figure. They settled on Frederick Douglass, as well as his wife Anna Murray-Douglass, who helped her husband escape slavery.
A previous attempt by the group to have the name changed years ago was met with silence from the board, said Jennifer Pagán, a former teacher at the academy who’s still involved in the name-change effort. This time around, the students’ advocacy finally gained traction.
Pagán said she is excited her students are finally being heard, but that excitement is layered with frustration because the advocacy group wasn’t invited to the board’s special meeting.
“It seems like an intentional political choice on the part of the board of commissioners not to include us in this larger meeting,” Pagán said. “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.”
The board did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jazzmin Johnson, 13, a student at Village Leadership Academy, has worked closely on the campaign to change the park’s name.
“The park is currently in a predominantly Black community,” Johnson said. “It’s insulting to have a slave owner ... he shouldn't really be honored.”
The board’s vote is an accomplishment to be shared with friends and family, Johnson said.
Dayo Harris, principal of Village Leadership Academy, said the school “centers on student voice,” and this campaign serves as an example of that commitment.
“Students have voice and agency now,” Harris said. “They are powerful change agents in the city.”