By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Presidents have them. So do Illinois governors, Chicago mayors and aldermen. Then there are war generals, business magnates, poets and Catholic priests.
For decades, drivers in Chicago have recognized their names among thousands of the city’s green street signs. In life, they were among the Who’s Who in Illinois and America. In death, they are honored with monuments and buildings throughout the state and country. In Chicago, the pioneers and leaders who have left their mark in American history have street names memorializing their legacy.
But in a city where people of color have made significant contributions, among the thousands of green signs that flank street poles throughout Chicago, only eight of them are named after Black leaders.
Now, city leaders have a chance to honor , a journalist and activist who documented and fought against lynchings that were so prevalent during slavery and Jim Crow. If the city agrees, Wells will become the first Black woman to have a street named after her. But if City Hall says no, it will be another stain on a record that honors few of the city’s prominent Blacks.
That stained record includes Stephen A. Douglas, the fiery Senator from Illinois, a notorious slave owner, who has four streets named after him. They include Douglas, Brandon (his hometown in Vermont), Oakenwald (his farm estate), and Groveland Park, a pre-Civil War development that Douglas founded off Cottage Grove and 33rd street. The development still exists today.
For decades, it was known as the capital of Black America. While prominent Blacks in the city made world history, built businesses and media empires with little resources, Chicago’s white leaders named more streets after slave owners, trees, flowers, even foreign cities. The number of these streets far outnumber those that honor Blacks.
One street, Balbo Drive, is named after Italo Balbo, an Italian aviator, who on July 15, 1933, led 24 seaplanes that landed off Navy Pier for the World’s Fair. It was the first transatlantic flight to North America and Chicago’s Italian-American community cheered with pride. But Balbo was also a strong supporter of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who believed that Blacks were too stupid to have a sense of nationality.
Despite Balbo’s fascist beliefs, two years after Ida B. Wells died, Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly renamed Seventh Street, Balbo Drive. It’s an honor that’s higher than having an honorary street sign, the ceremonial brown rectangle that hangs below the street sign. While many Blacks have honorary signs, for 86 years, Wells has had neither in her honor.
Now, violent incidents from white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia have renewed talks about renaming Balbo Drive, a half-mile street in the South Loop that runs from Michigan Avenue, east to Lake Shore Drive. There’s talk about renaming the street after Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist and University of Chicago professor who developed the world’s first nuclear reactor. In 2011, a local effort was made by then Alderman Bob Fioretti to have the street named after Fermi. The late physicist’s legacy is still strong today.
But support is even stronger for Ida B. Wells. Over 1,500 people across Chicago and its suburbs have signed a petition on change.org to have the street named after her.
“This trailblazing woman’s name needs to be associated with more than a public housing development. Make it so!” said Karen Boykin of Chicago.
Sarah Flax of Evanston, Illinois said, “I support this because there should be so much more public recognition of Ida B. Wells and other African-American heros (sic) who fought against white supremacy and for justice.”
Traci Sheppard of Chicago said, “There is little doubt that Ida B. Wells is a more appropriate name for a prominent Chicago street. (Though I still say I live at the Circle and not Jane Byrne Interchange. Nothing fascist about circles.)”
Two aldermen whose wards share Balbo Drive, Sophia King (4th Ward) and Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), want to remove Balbo’s name from the street, but the two aren’t saying who would replace him.
“We have inherited a legacy that honors and memorializes an individual who embraced white supremacy and who was part of the fascist onslaught which sought to take over the world,” said King. “Balbo is a symbol of racial and ethnic supremacy, and in this day and age we need positive symbols. It’s high time we removed these symbols of oppression and anti-democracy from our city.”
Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Ida B. Wells spent much of her life writing about hundreds of lynchings of Blacks living in the South. While living in Memphis in 1892, three of Wells’ friends were hanged by whites while there awaiting trial for a fight against several white men.
Wells began investigative journalism as part of her anti-lynching campaign. That year, she published a pamphlet called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” The literature reported that southerners hanged Black men alleging they raped white women, but Wells said this was to stop Blacks from making economic progress.
She had other articles published in the New York Age. Because of threats to her life, Wells moved to Chicago, where she married Ferdinand Lee Barnett at Bethel A.M.E. Church on June 27, 1895. Later, they moved to a three-story grey stone at 3624 S. King Drive where they lived from 1919 to 1932. In Chicago, she teamed up with abolitionist Frederick Douglass to organize a boycott to protest the lack of Black exhibits at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in Jackson Park.
Because she was both Black and a woman, Wells faced many setbacks. Black women were viewed as the bottom of the barrel. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a predominately white women’s progressive movement, forced Wells and other Black women to participate in segregated branches.
While raising a family in Chicago, Wells fought for better jobs and housing conditions as the Black population swelled during the Great Migration. She helped found the National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACWC) in 1896.
Wells died on March 25, 1931. She was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery. The burial ground was known for turning away Blacks but in death as in life, Wells found a way to break racial barriers.
Today, her home on South King Drive is a Chicago landmark. That’s all that physically remains of her legacy. In 2011 the last of the Ida B. Wells Housing Projects on city blocks where the Chicago Crusader was founded, and on blocks where a Mariano’s grocery store now stands, have all been demolished. And there is no honorary street sign named after her near her former King Drive residence. The one on a street closest to her Chicago home is named after another pioneering Chicago journalist, Lu Palmer.