NORTH LAWNDALE — Citing Stephen Douglas' racist past, a group of students want Douglas Park in North Lawndale renamed Douglass Park — after black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
The fifth-graders at Village Leadership Academy in the South Loop told the Chicago Park District board Wednesday that Stephen Douglas, a Civil War-era politician who opposed abolishing slavery nationwide in favor of states' rights, did not deserve to have the park in the predominantly African-American neighborhood named after him.
"He went with the majority, even if the majority wanted slavery," student Kirk Kelly told the board. "From our point of view, that wasn't enough to have a park named after you. ... Frederick was a revolutionary who believed in freedom and black revolution."
North Lawndale 24th Ward Ald. Michael Scott Jr. agreed.
"I don't think it's appropriate for someone who was a pseudo-champion of slavery to have a park named after them in a community that is [home to] people who are the descendants of slaves," Scott said.
Scott said the students first wanted the park renamed for Rekia Boyd, the 22-year-old woman who was fatally shot in Douglas Park by an off-duty Chicago Police Department detective in 2012. Boyd's death, and detective Dante Servin's acquittal in the case, sparked protests across Chicago. The students championed their position in a series of handwritten letters to the alderman, Scott told DNAinfo Wednesday.
The kids, students in teacher Bianca Jones' social engagement class, were persistent, Scott said. They wrote letter after letter until they met with the alderman in March to explain their position.
5th graders at Village Leadership Academy tell park board they want Douglas Park renamed after Frederick, not Stephen. pic.twitter.com/z3k7fEYwLf— David Lee Matthews (@DavidLMatthews) June 14, 2017
"They came in and gave me this wonderful presentation, and I thought, 'How can I not support these wonderful young people?'" Scott remembered.
At the meeting, Scott, a former Park District manager who oversaw Douglas Park and other parks on the city's West Side, told the students it would be very difficult to get the park board to rename the park, unless it was for a historical figure.
"That doesn't mean they wouldn't rename the park after Rekia Boyd, but it would be very difficult," Scott said he told the kids.
But Scott did agree that Douglas Park, which he lives near, should not be named after Stephen Douglas, a U.S. Senator from Illinois from 1847-1861.
Douglas is probably best-known for taking part in debates with Abraham Lincoln and arguing that African-American people — then called Negroes, the alderman noted — were not equal to white men. While Lincoln opposed slavery outright, Douglas pushed to allow states to decide for themselves whether to permit it. Douglas defeated Lincoln in the Senate race of 1858, but lost to Lincoln along with two other candidates in the 1860 presidential election.
Scott said he has wanted the park renamed for some time.
"He wasn't an opponent of slavery. He wasn't an abolitionist. He also thought less of [African-Americans] than any other race," Scott said of Douglas. "He didn't think much of black people, and the people that reside in my ward are black people and people of color— and the park where African-American children play every day in my ward should not be named for him."
Scott said he instead suggested renaming the park for Fredrick Douglass, a black hero who escaped slavery to become a national leader in the abolitionist movement — a man who believed that all people were equal.
"I told them Douglas was on the wrong side of history and that renaming it for Frederick Douglass would be an easier sell for the Park District," Scott said. "They agreed."
Most people in the city probably don't realize the park is named after Stephen Douglas, Scott said, and he praised the students for creating a "greater sense of urgency" to changing the park's name.
Scott said the students did "a ton of research" and eloquently presented their argument to the Park District board, giving the city the opportunity "to be on the right side of history in renaming the park for someone who was a champion for African-American people."
In an effort to honor Boyd's memory, the kids instead recommended renaming a playlot in the park for Boyd at the park board meeting Wednesday.
There are five playlots in Douglas Park, Scott said. If approved by the park board, a playlot at 14th and Douglas, closest to where Rekia Boyd was killed, will be renamed for her.
"We think [Boyd's] death was unjust. We think her life was cut short," one student said.
The playground's dedication will help ensure "she did not die in vain," the student said.
"We think naming the playground after someone from the community will be more joyous than what we see now, which is just a playground."
Neither Park District staff nor board members addressed the proposal during the meeting Wednesday.