Aldermen Brendan Reilly and Sophia King announce plans to introduce an ordinance changing the name of Balbo Drive to Ida B. Wells Drive. Credit: John Greenfield

A move to rename a downtown street to Ida B. Wells Drive as a tribute to the former Chicago resident and black civil rights pioneer got key support Wednesday from a handful of aldermen as well as community members and a prominent university.

“We are all recipients of Ida B. Wells’s tireless and fearless advocacy,” downtown aldermen Sophia King (Fourth) said at a press conference at City Hall. She and Brendan Reilly (42nd) have introduced an ordinance to change the name of Balbo Drive, which is named for Italian fascist Italo Balbo, to Ida B. Wells Drive. 

“She risked her life to bring light to lynchings and the trumped-up charges that were used to justify them.”

King said it was time to change the street—named for Mussolini’s air commander shortly after he lead a squadron of seaplanes to Chicago in 1933—for the former slave, journalist, anti-lynching activist, and woman’s suffrage advocate. The aldermen say this would be the first Chicago street renaming since 1968, when South Park Drive was renamed to honor Martin Luther King Jr., and the first downtown street named for a woman and a person of color.

She noted that Wells was a panelist, along with abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass (for whom activists want to rename the south side’s Douglas Park currently named for Stephen Douglas), at a forum on lynching at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. King added that Wells cofounded the NAACP and was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement.

“In 1913 during the women’s suffrage national march on Washington, black women were told to march at the rear of the march. She defied the odds even then and joined her friends at the front of the march in the delegation for Illinois,” she said. King argued that the tribute to Wells was long overdue.

Ida B. Wells

Prior to the press conference Reilly told me that the name change was “not meant in any way to disrespect Chicago’s Italian-American community.” Although Balbo founded Mussolini’s brutal Black Shirts paramilitary squad and has been accused of overseeing ethnic cleansing efforts in Libya and Ethiopia as governor of Italy’s African colonies, local Balbo boosters have argued that he was a hero, noting that he opposed Italy’s alliance with Hitler and Mussolini’s anti-Jewish laws.

“But let’s be honest here,” Reilly told me. “Mr. Balbo was not an Italian-American, he was an Italian who worked for the fascist party.”

He said that there are other downtown streets that could be named for a “worthy” Italian-American who lived in Chicago, such as Saint Francis Cabrini or University of Chicago physicist Enrico Fermi, although he didn’t say which streets he had in mind.

There appear to be only three properties whose addresses would be affected by the name: DePaul’s Merle Reskin Theater at 64-66 E. Balbo, the university’s new 30 East upscale student apartments, and the Carter House Apartments at 1 E. Balbo, the building that houses the South Loop Tap. Reilly says DePaul is in favor of the name change.

While the street name will include Ida B. Wells’s full name, he said he’s not worried about confusion with Wells Street, which is named for Battle of Fort Dearborn casualty Captain William Wells.

A handful of other African-American officials gave remarks in support of the renaming, including west-side alderman Carrie Austin (34th).

Ida B. Wells’s great-grandson Dan Duster, a Chicagoan who attended the ceremony, said that his ancestor deserves the tribute as one of the most influential figures in our city’s history.

“To see a black female receive this honor in Chicago is outstanding,” he said. “The fact that she’s my great-grandmother makes it that much more special.”


Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans president emeritus Dominic DiFrisco, who has bitterly opposed the name change in the past, later told me that Wells should be instead be honored by the city renaming State Street or Lake Shore Drive for her.

“That would add luster to her already well-deserved reputation,” he said. Renaming those iconic, multimile roadways would be an even heavier political lift, however.

DiFrisco said he and other friends plan to lobby Chicago’s Italian-American aldermen to vote against the measure if it comes before the full council this summer. Northwest-side aldermen Nicholas Sposato (38th) and Margaret Laurino (39th) said last August they’d be comfortable with the name change if the street honored a distinguished Italian-American.

If Balbo is renamed, DiFrisco and other supporters will resort to civil disobedience, he said: “The day they try to take down the signs, members of the Italian-American community will be there in force to block them and make enough of a peaceful protest that we get arrested.”

Reilly’s spokeswoman, Martha Donnelly, later told me that the ordinance already has significant support among the City Council’s Black Caucus and Women’s Caucus, and Reilly plans to start discussing
the ordinance with other colleagues next week.

A variety of protesters were also at City Hall Wednesday in advance of the City Council meeting. While Kyana Butler, of South Side Together Organizing for Power, came out to push a community benefits agreement in advance of building the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, she said she supported the street renaming downtown.

Wells was “a pillar of the community. . . . Ida B. Wells deserves a street name. And if the street was named after someone who was dishonorable, he shouldn’t have his name on that drive.”