Stephen Douglas Name Officially Removed From Park, But There’s a New Wrinkle To Renaming It for Frederick Douglass

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners officially stripped the name of 19th century statesman Stephen Douglas from the North Lawndale park now temporarily designated Park 218.

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The decision was three years in the making, following a grassroots campaign led by students at Village Leadership Academy (VLA), several of whom weighed in on the matter during the public participation portion of the board’s monthly meeting.

The students have long argued that it’s insulting to have a park in the predominantly Black community of North Lawndale named for Stephen Douglas, who profited from the labor of people enslaved on a plantation inherited by his wife.

“We, as a board, are impressed by your determination and your refusal to take no as an answer,” said Avis LaVelle, board president. “You are to be commended for being ahead of the curve by a long way.”

The process to remove Douglas’ name was initiated by the board in July, triggering a 45-day comment period. During that time, the board received 138 comments on the change: 136 in favor and two opposed, according to Heather Gleason, director of planning and development for the Park District.

When VLA students launched their push in 2017 to remove the name Douglas, they originally wanted to rename the park for Rekia Boyd, who was killed by an off-duty Chicago detective in 2012, but were told by officials that would be a “heavy lift.” They then shifted their efforts to rename the park after Frederick Douglass, a famed abolitionist, orator and intellectual, and most recently amended their campaign to incorporate the name of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick’s wife.

It was the inclusion of Anna that added a new, unexpected twist to the Douglas(s) saga. 

As a response to the request to rename Douglas Park — a first for the district in terms of stripping the name of one historical figure or event in favor of another — the Park District board has implemented a two-step process of first considering whether to remove a name, and then if that measure is approved, introducing a second measure for the new name. Both phases involve allowing for 45-day comment periods prior to a board vote.

Having agreed to remove the name Douglas, the Park District board introduced a motion to begin the process of renaming Park 218 for the Douglasses. 

Michael Kelly, general superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District, clarified that the name in consideration was specifically Anna and Frederick Douglass Park, in that order, per the VLA students’ preference. 

That’s when board vice president Tim King, the founder, president and CEO of Urban Prep Academies, questioned whether the name shouldn’t just be Anna Douglass Park.

Anna wasn’t Frederick’s only wife, and because of that, King wondered whether it was appropriate to pair the two in perpetuity. (Frederick and Anna were married for 44 years until her death. He eventually remarried.) 

Given that Anna, a free Black woman who helped Douglass escape from slavery and was an abolitionist in her own right, has been completely overshadowed by Frederick, he said, and isn’t likely to have many other monuments dedicated in her name, why not just name the park for her?

That idea hadn’t been put forward previously over the course of the three-year campaign, LaVelle responded. 

Ultimately, commissioners voted to move forward with the motion to rename the park for Anna and Frederick Douglass, with the 45-day public comment period giving people the opportunity to chime in on King’s suggestion, LaVelle said. 

Also at the meeting, the board officially adopted Bloomingdale Trail as the name for the multiuse path often mislabeled “The 606.”

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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