Italo Balbo visited Chicago in 1933. Credit: Sun-Times file photo

Last August, in the wake of the racist violence in Charlottesville, downtown aldermen Sophia King (Second) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) called for renaming Balbo Drive. The street honors Italo Balbo, a leader of the Blackshirts, the paramilitary wing of Italy’s National Fascist Party, who later became Mussolini’s air commander and governor of colonized Libya. The aldermen blasted Balbo as a brutal racist.

“We have inherited a legacy that honors and memorializes an individual who embraced white supremacy and who was part of the fascist onslaught which sought to take over the world,” said Alderman King in a statement at the time. “Balbo is a symbol of racial and ethnic supremacy, and in this day and age we need positive symbols. It’s high time we removed these symbols of oppression and anti-democracy from our city.”

Last month King and Reilly introduced an ordinance that would have renamed the drive after Ida B. Wells, a former slave, journalist, anti-lynching activist, and woman’s suffrage advocate.

But apparently the aldermen no longer feel that honoring a fascist is a problem. In the face of continuing opposition from local Balbo fans, the politicians have abandoned their efforts to rename the street that honors him, according to a report in the Sun-Times. The aldermen are instead now pushing for Congress Drive to be named after Wells. The full City Council is expected to approve the new proposal at Wednesday’s meeting, the paper reported.

King and Reilly’s offices didn’t immediately respond to my interview requests this afternoon, but King told the Sun-Times that a major concern was the expense and hassle posed to business owners and residents who would have to change their addresses. However, there appear to be only three properties on Balbo whose addresses would have been affected by the name: DePaul’s Merle Reskin Theatre 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 Club. Reilly previously said DePaul was in favor of the Balbo name change.

Ida B. Wells
Ida B. WellsCredit: Sun-Times file photo

I suspect the real reason King and Reilly gave up on removing the tribute to the fascist was stiff opposition to the plan from a vocal minority of Balbo fans led by Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans president emeritus Dominic DiFrisco. The street was named in Balbo’s honor shortly after he led a squadron of seaplanes to Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, since many local Italian-Americans viewed him as a hero at the time. Recently Balbo boosters like DiFrisco have noted that the aviator opposed Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws and alliance with Hitler.

DiFrisco told me Tuesday that the aldermen’s decision is a huge win for the city. “Ida B. Wells is getting her long-overdue recognition, and we are retaining a cherished part of Italian-American culture,” he said.

But does a Blackshirt leader who organized the killings of unarmed civilians in the 1920s, paving the way for Mussolini’s rise to power, deserve to be honored with a street name? “The founding fathers of the United States killed innocent people too,” DiFrisco replied. “Atrocities are committed in all wars. . . . I’m sure people will continue to attack Balbo’s legacy in Chicago, and we will continue to defend it.”

Edward Muir, a professor of Italian history at Northwestern University, is one of those people—he said it’s “a grave shame” that Balbo’s street name will remain and labeled DiFrisco “a typical fascist apologist.”

“Balbo was a fascist thug and a mass murderer as governor of Libya,” Muir added. “We have a street named after him because he came here in 1933 as part of the fascist propaganda effort.” The professor argued that Balbo was complicit in ethnic-cleansing efforts in North Africa, including concentration camps established for Berber rebels where thousands of people starved to death.

Erku Yimer, the former director of the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago and a scholar of Ethiopian history, agreed that it’s disgraceful that Chicago continues to honor Balbo. “He organized the march to Rome that put Mussolini in power—even in Italy people have completely renounced him,” he noted. As such, he argues, Balbo was indirectly responsible for the genocidal tactics that the fascists employed during their invasion of Ethiopia, including the use of carpet-bombing and poison gas against civilians. The latter temporarily blinded Yimer’s father, who fought against the Italians in the Ethiopian peasant army.

“Whenever I drive on Lake Shore Drive and see the signs for Balbo Drive, I think of the Ethiopians who were persecuted by the fascists,” Yimer said. “Absolutely the name should be changed.”