Crusader Staff Report
Residents in North Lawndale this weekend will celebrate a hard-fought, historic victory that led to the renaming of Stephen Douglas Park after abolitionist, journalist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass and his wife.
The three-hour celebration will take place at 2:00 p.m. in the park, located at 1401 S. Sacramento Drive. The Village Leadership Academy is sponsoring the celebration, which will feature live performances, free food, and a DJ. Students will also speak about the success of the campaign.
The celebration will cap a three-year battle from parents and students at Village Leadership Academy, who circulated a petition asking the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners to rename Douglas Park. The park was named after Stephen A. Douglas, a U.S. Senator and slave owner from Illinois who lost the presidential election to political rival Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Douglas’ tomb is located east of Cottage Grove Avenue on 35th Street near Lake Shore Drive. Douglas was known to many as the “Little Giant.” He died in 1861 after a powerful career in politics as a fierce debater who argued that states should have the right to determine whether slavery should be legal.
In 1869, the Illinois State Legislature established the West Park Commission. Commissioners named the southernmost park to honor Douglas, who also helped bring the Illinois Central Railroad to Chicago.
With his enduring legacy and revered political achievements, park district officials were reluctant to rename Douglas Park. But with ongoing racial justice protests after George Floyd’s death, cities and states have begun removing statues of slave owners and Confederate monuments.
Students from the Academy poured hours into canvassing, gathering petition signatures, and attending board meetings as they pushed for the name change. In July, their hard work paid off when the board voted to begin the process of removing Douglas’ name from the park. An initial 45-day public comment period generated 138 comments from residents. Out of that number, 136 favored removing Douglas’ name.
On September 10, park officials began removing the old signs bearing Stephen Douglas’ name.
The park was the latest location where Douglas’ name or likeness was removed because of his dark past. Last month, the Illinois State Legislature voted to remove Douglas’ statue from the state Capitol lawn in Springfield. In July, the University of Chicago removed a bronze plaque with an image of Douglas, as well as a stone from a now demolished building that had been part of the first University of Chicago, which Douglas helped found in what today is Bronzeville.
Douglas Park offers many recreational and cultural opportunities for park patrons. The fieldhouse features two gymnasiums, an auditorium, a computer lab, a fitness center, a kitchen, a grand ballroom and meeting rooms.
Outdoors, the park offers tennis courts, a game day football stadium, an outdoor pool, water spray features, basketball courts, an artificial turf soccer field, a pavilion, baseball fields and a small golf putting range.
Born into slavery, Frederick Douglass went on to become one of the most important leaders in Black history. His contributions and significance in shaping the future of Blacks are gaining new interest among a new, younger generation of admirers. One of his famous speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” remains relevant in today’s racial climate.
Douglass learned how to read at a time when it was illegal to teach Blacks the English language. He read newspapers avidly and sought out political writings and literature as much as possible. Throughout his life, Douglass fought against slavery and published several critically-acclaimed books advocating for the freedom and liberation of Blacks.
Douglass was an eloquent speaker who also advocated for women’s right to vote.
On September 15, 1838, Douglass married Anna Murray, a free Black woman. Douglass had fallen in love with Murray, who assisted him in his final attempt to escape slavery in Baltimore. They married and adopted the name of Johnson to disguise Douglass’ identity. Anna and Frederick settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which had a thriving free Black community. There they adopted Douglass as their married name.
Douglass was also a journalist, who in 1847, started the North Star anti-slavery newspaper. The title was a reference to the directions given to runaway slaves trying to reach the Northern states and Canada: “Follow the North Star.” In 1893, Douglass and Journalist Ida B. Wells participated in the Chicago World’s Fair at the event’s only Black pavilion in Jackson Park.
Douglass died on February 20, 1895, of a massive heart attack or stroke shortly after returning from a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.