Lake Shore Drive sign as seen from the northbound on-ramp at East 18th Drive. | Brian Ernst / Sun-Times
Chicago has to deal with its own racial reckoning. A key support of changing the name says that ‘will be a start and will help heal some of the wounds.’
My first reaction to the city renaming Lake Shore Drive for Jean Baptiste Point DuSable was: Why?
Lake Shore Drive seems a fitting name for a roadway that runs parallel to Lake Michigan, giving drivers a spectacular view that doesn’t cost them anything.
But after talking with Ephraim Martin, the chairman of Black Heroes Matter, I have to ask: Why not?
Like many other Black historical figures, DuSable’s contributions as the city’s founder were acknowledged grudgingly.
It took a tireless crusade on the part of Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter to get Congress Parkway renamed for the pioneering Black journalist and suffragist who shone a light on lynching in America.
And Ada S. McKinley’s legacy as the founder of a settlement house in 1919 amid racial unrest and the Spanish flu that still exists as a social service agency hasn’t been honored with a monument, plaque or street.
“For 240 years, DuSable has been rejected by virtue of the color of his skin,” said Martin, who recited a litany of white historical figures with streets in Chicago named after them. “In 1830, the first person that was given a street was Jefferson, then Washington and John Kinzie, who purchased DuSable’s house, but nothing for DuSable.
“In 1927, there was another chance to give DuSable his due as Field Drive. That was not done. It was given the name of Leif Erickson. And again in 1946, there was another chance to give DuSable the honor of Lake Shore Drive, and DuSable was overlooked.
“We have over 2,000 streets in Chicago and not one with the name of the founding father. It is time for DuSable to get his full reward.”
But Mayor Lori Lightfoot opposes renaming Lake Shore Drive, pointing to the name as an important brand that attracts tourism.
As an alternative, the mayor has offered to:
Complete DuSable Park (designated by Mayor Harold Washington in 1987).
Establish an annual DuSable Festival.
Rename the downtown Riverwalk in honor of DuSable, at the cost of $40 million.
But Martin sees Lake Shore Drive as more than a marketing tool for the city.
“It is the one thing that can link north and south together,” he said. “It is the only thing that is going to grow us together. Chicago is ready to make a difference and to show the world that they are leading the way to end systemic and institutionalized racism.”
Black Heroes Matter, operating under Martin’s International Foundation, started the renaming movement in 1993, backed by the late Margaret Burroughs, co-founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Then an alderman, Toni Preckwinkle, was the chief sponsor. The measure was soundly defeated in a city council committee, with the vote along racial lines.
Nearly three decades later, with a Black, gay mayor in office, supporters likely thought the time had come.
But while the votes were there to rename Lake Shore Drive, according to Ald. Sophia King (4th), the will of City Hall wasn’t.
That has Martin worried.
“We thought [Lightfoot] was on board with us,” he said. “It is our belief that she may be getting pressure from others. But it is a small minority out there trying to prevent the renaming of the Drive. By far, the majority of people would like to see the change.”
This is a huge test of the mayor’s leadership.
Just as other cities are wrestling with what to do about monuments, schools and government buildings that honor people who acted dishonorably toward Black and Brown people, Chicago has to deal with its own racial reckoning.
“Renaming Lake Shore Drive will be a start and will help heal some of the wounds,” Martin said. “Then, of course, we get on to the monument and holiday that the mayor is talking about.
“But that $40 million cannot be a compromise for what we are doing. We will not compromise. We will fight for Lake Shore Drive until we win.”