On Saturday morning, representatives from various organizations will gather for the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the bust of Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, commemorating the death more than 200 years ago of Chicago’s first non-native settler.
The occasion always inspires reverence, said Serge JC Pierre-Louis, founder and past president of the DuSable Heritage Association, but that deep sense of respect strikes him as even more heightened in 2020.
DuSable’s story, not so much forgotten by history as it was suppressed or willfully ignored, is coming to the fore at the precise moment when Chicagoans most need to hear it, Pierre-Louis said.
“We still haven’t figured out how to be a harmonious society, where everybody is respected and everybody’s contribution is recognized. We are still struggling as a nation to do that,” he said. “If we are asking as a city, ‘How can we bring peace to Chicago? How can we respect all the different ethnic groups? How can we live together?’ why don’t we go back to the beginning, to the origins of Chicago. Learn the history of Jean Baptiste DuSable.”
The son of a White Frenchman and an enslaved Black woman, DuSable migrated from Haiti to what’s now Chicago in the late 1700s, established a trading post, and embraced the native people already occupying the land.
“He was open-minded enough to join the Potawatomi tribe, to respect them and their traditions, to marry one of them, to have two children with her (his wife, Kitihawa),” Pierre-Louis said. “And he got along very well with White people who were around the settlement with him. Well then, what happened? How come after 200 years we haven’t learned? He gave the example of how to be multiculturalists.”
These are the sorts of lessons that Pierre-Louis said could be highlighted via exhibits at the long-delayed DuSable Park, which remains undeveloped more than 30 years after Mayor Harold Washington dedicated a strip of lakefront in DuSable’s honor in 1987.
Progress on the 3.4-acre site, directly east of Lake Shore Drive between the mouth of the Chicago River and the Ogden Slip, has been plagued nearly from the start, be it from a lack of political will following the death of Washington to the discovery of radioactive thorium in the soil, the legacy of the land’s use as a dumping ground by an early 20th century lamp factory.
Despite these setbacks, Pierre-Louis said the park’s supporters never considered an alternate site or having DuSable’s name placed on an existing park.
For starters, the lakefront peninsula makes sense from a historical perspective, as it’s close to where DuSable settled (roughly where Pioneer Court/the Apple Store are now), said Pierre-Louis, and to go somewhere else would negate Washington’s vision, he added.
“We think he chose an excellent site. It is between Navy Pier and Millennium Park, the two major tourist attractions, so therefore DuSable Park is really at the center of the economic engine of Chicago, which, when DuSable came here, he basically put Chicago on the map, and Chicago became the economic engine in the early American Midwest. So I think this piece of land reflects all that,” Pierre-Louis said.
Persistence and patience have paid off for the park’s coalition of advocates. A series of recent developments have nudged the site closer than ever to becoming more than an overgrown lot.
For years the fate of DuSable Park had the misfortune of being tied to the ill-fated Chicago Spire, the proposed skyscraper that never got off the ground courtesy of the 2008 economic collapse. The Spire site, directly across Lake Shore Drive from the park, was acquired in 2014 by Related Midwest, which presented an updated plan in June to develop the property, including a pledge of $10 million to help transform the parkland.
In July, Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced an ordinance to City Council that would direct $5 million in Open Space Impact Fees to DuSable Park. The measure, approved by a City Council committee in August, should come up for a full vote this fall.
Friends of the Parks said the city’s engagement was overdue, considering the way funding for other downtown parks had leapfrogged DuSable.
“At a time when there are calls for statues and parks to be removed or renamed, we must prioritize our investments in monuments that honor more diverse contributions to our city and society,” Juanita Irizarry, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement.
Perhaps the most important milestone reached has been the completion of remediation of the contaminated soil by the Environmental Protection Agency and Chicago Park District, which also rebuilt the seawall surrounding the park.
“We are finally seeing concrete steps to make the park a reality,” Pierre-Louis said. “We are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but this is not the end. We are hoping to be part of the process that’s going to be redesigning the park, that’s going to be deciding what’s in the park itself, and whether it’s going to actually reflect the story of DuSable and the time that he lived in.”
The DuSable Heritage Association has long made the case for the park to be a passive, quiet place — “Not a playground with children jumping up and down” — imbued with a sense of history more typical of, say, Boston than Chicago.
“It should have the sense, ‘This is where Chicago started,’” Pierre-Louis said. “Among all the parks, we have an opportunity to create something unique.”
Though Saturday’s wreath-laying ceremony will be limited to handful of guests in person, it can be viewed on Zoom and Facebook Live via Friends of the Parks, at 11:30 a.m. (Click here for streaming information.)
Come 2024 or 2025, the commemoration could be taking place in DuSable Park.