Proposal to honor Chicago Founder Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable sets up a political battle that may rekindle racial wounds
By Erick Johnson
Beaches. Parks. Museums. Skyscrapers.
For decades, Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive has been an iconic expressway that has connected the city’s South and North Sides in ways many of the city’s streets have not. It’s prominent destinations, picturesque parks, and award-winning museums have made Lake Shore Drive a scenic, national attraction that seduces tourists and locals throughout the year.
More than two decades ago, back when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was alderman of the 4th Ward, a proposal to rename Lake Shore Drive after Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, a Black man who was the “Founder of Chicago,” sparked a battle that escalated racial tensions at City Hall.
Look out. Road rage may be on the horizon again over Lake Shore Drive’s future. A battle may be revving up at City Hall as the Committee on Transportation and Public Way prepare to begin meetings on another proposal to rename Lake Shore Drive after DuSable.
Born to a mother who was a slave, DuSable was the first settler in the city. Today, the DuSable Museum, DuSable Leadership Academy, the DuSable Harbor, the DuSable Bridge over the Chicago River and a statue on Pioneer court on Michigan Avenue honor DuSable’s legacy and contributions to the city.
There are also sites whose problems have fallen short in honoring DuSable’s legacy. In 1987, Mayor Harold Washington dedicated a parcel of land at the base of the Chicago River as DuSable Park.
Alderman David Moore (17th), who sponsored the latest proposal, believes that DuSable’s impact and significance on Chicago’s history are not being fully recognized. He believes a major street should be named after DuSable in the same way many white pioneers have been acknowledged.
On October 16, Moore and seven Black aldermen were among the majority of 11 City Council members who sponsored a proposal that would rename the iconic street “Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Drive” from the north end at Hollywood Avenue, south to 71st Street in South Shore.
The Black aldermen include Sophia King (4th), Stephanie Coleman (16th), Maria Hadden (49), Derrick Curtis (18), Chris Taliaferro (29th), Walter Burnett (37th) and Howard Brookins, Jr. (21st).
According to the proposed ordinance, DuSable’s role in Chicago’s history wasn’t acknowledged until the mid-20th century, and even now, “very few people, especially tourists and new Chicagoans, know DuSable as the founder of Chicago.”
Moore in several news reports said that he realized that it was necessary to rename Lake Shore Drive in honor of DuSable, after taking a tour of the city three years ago.
“The guide talked about everyone from Burnham to mayors, but never DuSable. I was very offended by that as an African American, so much so that I approached the tour guide and asked, ‘how can you talk about Chicago and not mention this man?’” the alderman told the online publication Curbed Chicago.
The proposed ordinance says it’s “appalling” that no major street is named after DuSable and with this ordinance “this city can right a wrong that is 230 years in the making.”
(When a Crusader journalist took three summer interns on a tour of the Chicago River on the popular Seadog boat, the tour guide did not mention anything about DuSable as the boat went under the namesake bridge.)
The proposal has the potential to tear open wounds and spark a racial battle, given the history of renaming prominent streets after famous Black pioneers.
The most recent one ended this year when Congress Parkway was renamed for Ida B. Wells after Chicago’s Italian community objected to a proposal in 2018 that would have renamed Balbo Drive after the pioneering Black journalist. Balbo Drive was named after Italian aviator Italo Balbo, who led an armada during a special flight to Chicago for the city’s “Century of Progress” World’s Fair.
Ida B. Wells Drive became a street on February 11, an achievement that capped a battle that lasted more than a year.
In the latest battle to rename Lake Shore Drive after DuSable, aldermen say, “While we are excited about the renaming of Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive, it is shameful that there is no major street or drive named after an African American male coming through the central business district.”
The last time an effort was made to rename Lake Shore Drive, it ended in defeat. Then-Alderman Preckwinkle sponsored a similar bill that drew concerns from residents and businesses. In one news report Preckwinkle took the campaign to the radio, asking for listeners to go to City Hall and support the renaming of Lake Shore Drive after DuSable. Two other prominent supporters, Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum, and Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony magazine, argued that DuSable, as the city’s first settler, laid the foundation that paved the way for Chicago’s business community today.
While opponents said they supported some sort of tribute to DuSable, they were concerned that renaming a famous street would cause economic and historic damage to the city.
A spokesman for the Illinois Hotel and Motel Association said Lake Shore Drive should be kept because it’s a world-renowned street that promotes tourism and serves a “terrific public relations tool for our city.”
During the hearing, 32 witnesses testified. Only half supported the proposal, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune.
The proposal was rejected along racial lines by an 8-2 vote.