Should we rename Lake Shore Drive for Chicago founder Jean Baptiste Point du Sable?

Bust of Point du Sable by the Michigan Avenue bridge, near the site of his trading post. Photo: Mark Dossous
Bust of Point du Sable by the Michigan Avenue bridge, near the site of his trading post. Photo: Mark Dossous

Last year Chicago’s Congress Parkway, the southern border of the Loop, was renamed for local resident Ida B. Wells, the renowned investigative journalist, anti-lynching activist, and suffragist. It was the first-ever downtown Chicago roadway to be named for an African-American woman.

Right now aldermen are considering an ordinance to rename a much more iconic roadway for another local Black trailblazer. As originally reported by Block Club’s Alex Nitkin, the group Black Heroes Matter has long called for renaming Lake Shore Drive for Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who established a trading post near the modern-day Michigan Avenue bridge. Regarded as the permanent first non-Native resident of the area, he is considered to be the founder of Chicago.

While Point du Sable’s early life is shrouded in mystery, accounts in the late 1770s described him as a handsome and erudite man of African descent who married an indigenous woman named Kitihawa, with whom he had two children. After living various places around the Great Lakes, by early 1790 he was recorded as having established a large, successful trading operation at the mouth of the Chicago river. He sold the property in 1800 and moved to St. Charles, Missouri, where he was licensed to operate a river ferry, and died there in 1818.

Due to racism, Point du Sable’s contributions to establishing our city weren’t widely recognized until the 20th Century. (Rather than acknowledging his role, a plaque installed in 1913 near the site of his cabin instead, where setter John Kinzie later lived, stated, “Here was born in 1805 the city’s first white [emphasis added] child—Ellen Marion Kinzie.” Point du Sable was eventually honored with namesakes like DuSable Harbor, located on the lake just south of the river, and the DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park.

The new ordinance was sponsored in 2019 by Mid South Side alderman David Moore and also sponsored by 10 other City Council members, Block Club reported. It would rename the outer lanes of the drive, from 71st Street to Hollywood Avenue. Inner Lake Shore Drive would keep its name, so that businesses and residences on that roadway wouldn’t need to change their mailing addresses.

I’m guessing that few Chicagoans are aware that there’s already a street named after Point DuSable, albeit it a very short one. According to the book “Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names” by Don Hayner and Tom McNamee, Jean Avenue, a three-block side street in the quiet Wildwood enclave of the Far Northwest Side Forest Glen community area, is a tribute to the Black pioneer.

The west end of Jean Avenue in Wildwood, near the south end of the North Branch Trail. Image: Google Maps
The west end of Jean Avenue in Wildwood, near the south end of the North Branch Trail. Image: Google Maps

Of course, arguably that sleepy lane is not enough of a street tribute for a man who played such an important role in launching this great city. At today’s City Council Committee on Transportation and Public Way online meeting, Ephraim Martin, leader of the organization Black Heroes Matter, which is pushing for the LSD name change, passionately framed the move as a way to address past racial injustice, arguing that Point du Sable also deserves a city holiday and a major monument.

Martin stated that in 2020 it’s unthinkable that any alderman would oppose renaming the highway. Martin, who was born in Jamaica, asserted that Point du Sable was “a Black man from the Caribbean country of Haiti.” The trader is traditionally said to be Haitian, from the French colony of Saint-Domingue.

Martin discussed Chicago’s long history of discrimination against Black people, pointing to the racially-charged “Council Wars” of the 1980s, when white aldermen formed a voting bloc against Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington. Martin said Washington stated, “If I could get five more aldermen to forget about the color of my skin,” he would have accomplished much more during his tenure.

“You must now start a process” to address past wrongs, Martin concluded. “Give to DuSable what is due to DuSable, Chicago’s founding father.” He was the only person to testify on the subject at the meeting. Transportation committee chair Far South Side alderman Howard Brookins said the committee will address the matter at another session at 11 a.m. tomorrow, and the should be a final vote in April.

I did a quick survey on the question of renaming Lake Shore Drive on Twitter via the Streetsblog account and my personal feed (obviously not a random sampling of Chicagoans.) Here are a few of the reactions.

Again, that doesn’t represent the opinions of a cross-section of Chicagoans. But it does suggest that there will be some significant pushback to the idea.

Personally, I’ve long been interested in seeing Point du Sable get more recognition (I even wrote a song about him.) And, in the wake of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests and increased calls for racial reckoning, renaming Chicago’s famous shoreline highway for an overlooked Black hero would be a powerful statement.

On the other hand, Lake Shore Drive is already an important part of Chicago’s iconography, so I can certainly see the argument for instead renaming, say, Balbo Drive, which honors an allegedly murderous fascist Blackshirt leader who helped bring Mussolini to power.

What are your thoughts on the issue? Let us know in the comments.

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