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Aldermen propose renaming Balbo Drive for ‘fearless’ advocate Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells, a fiercely independent 19th century black woman, was born into slavery and became a leader in the struggle against racism.

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery and became a leader in the struggle against racism. | Sun-Times files

Balbo Drive would be renamed for Ida B. Wells, an iconic figure in the African-American community who led an anti-lynching crusade, under an aldermanic plan that is certain to stir controversy.

South Side Ald. Sophia King (4th) and downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) plan to launch the effort at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

They will introduce an ordinance to rename Balbo Drive in honor of Wells. If colleagues go along with the idea, it would be Chicago’s first permanent street renaming since 1968 and the first street in the Loop named after a woman and a person of color, according to King’s staff.

“Countless individuals are recipients of Ida B. Wells’ tireless and fearless advocacy which has had an insurmountable impact on the women’s and civil rights movements,” King said. “This street naming is a small homage to a woman who greatly impacted quality of life for people not just in Chicago but whose ripple effect is felt throughout the world today.”

King and Reilly said they have the support of more than 30 civic organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Chicago — and the enthusiastic backing of one of the civil rights icon’s descendants.

“My great-grandmother, Ida B Wells-Barnett, who was born a slave, spent over 45 years of her life fighting for justice and equality for women, African Americans and other marginalized people,” said Michelle Duster. “This change will be a representation of what our city values – truth, justice and equality.”

Renaming Balbo was proposed before — but it went nowhere after facing a buzz saw of opposition.

It happened last summer, when the national furor that has prompted many southern states to tear down or cover Confederate monuments swept into Chicago, but in a different way.

Italo Balbo, II Duce’s governor of Libya, stands at the right of the uniformed group in front of the Grant Park statue, photographed in 1933. SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reported that Aldermen Edward Burke (14th) and Gilbert Villegas (36th) were reviving a long-standing campaign to remove a monument to Italo Balbo, 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.

Balbo served as Mussolini’s air comandante. The monument was Mussolini’s gift to Chicago in 1933.

To “right a wrong,” the aldermen further demanded that Balbo Drive, one of the most heavily traveled streets on the lakefront, be renamed.

Street sign where Balbo Drive intersects with State Street. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Street sign where Balbo Drive intersects with State Street, Tuesday, May 22,2018 | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“I’m amazed the citizens of Chicago have not demanded that these symbols of fascism — a street and a statue bearing Balbo’s name — donated by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, a sidekick of Adolf Hitler, be removed decades ago from the city’s landscape,” Burke said then. “It is now time Chicago does something permanent about this embarrassing anomaly.”

The proposal to rename Balbo Drive went nowhere amid stiff opposition from Italian-American civic leaders.

If the aldermen’s plan succeeds it would be the first official street renaming since South Parkway was changed to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in 1968.

Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans, could not be reached about the latest effort to rename Balbo Drive.

One of A Century of Progress’ most memorable occasions was the visit of Italo Balbo and his intrepid crew of 96 from overseas. | SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION

When Burke suggested the idea last summer, DiFrisco joined Lou Rago, president of the Italian American Human Relations Foundation, in writing a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times defending Balbo’s honor.

They argued that Italo Balbo had unfairly become “residual shrapnel from the barrage of bullets the rest of the country is firing over what to do with the approximate 1,500 Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces.”

They wondered why the memory of Balbo’s “remarkable accomplishments” was being “swept up into the national wave of removing the past.”

Dozens protest and call for the removal of the Balbo monument, given to Chicago in 1933 by fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, in Burnham Park, Wednesday night, Aug. 23, 2017. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Dozens protest and call for the removal of the Balbo monument, given to Chicago in 1933 by fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, in Burnham Park, Wednesday night, Aug. 23, 2017. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“We want to be perfectly clear. Italo Balbo was an outspoken opponent of the Mussolini tilt towards Hitler and was not the enemy that many in the Chicago City Council are portraying he was,” they wrote.

“Despite being a general under Mussolini, when Balbo saw where Mussolini was going with his pro-German policies, he was horrified. He was one of the only fascists in Mussolini’s regime to openly oppose Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws and Italy’s alliance with Germany.”

The letter to the editor sought to correct the historical record.

Eighty-five years ago, General Balbo’s air armada landed at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exhibit, “marking the first mass flight of planes crossing the North Atlantic,” the letter stated.

“The transatlantic crossing was rightly recognized as one of the most important and best executed aeronautical achievements of that time, having made a valuable contribution toward the future realization of routine intercontinental air travel and to technological progress,” they wrote.

“The day of Balbo’s arrival on the lakefront was the single most memorable and important day in the history of Chicago’s Italian American community. President Roosevelt honored him at the White House. And now Balbo’s name is in question because of misinformation.”