It was a powerful moment this morning when a mostly African-American crowd gathered in the soaring atrium of the Harold Washington Library Center’s Winter Garden to honor Chicagoan Ida B. Wells, the investigative journalist, anti-lynching activist, and suffragist for whom Congress Parkway, the southern border of the Loop, was officially renamed today. It’s the first-ever downtown Chicago roadway to be named for an African-American woman.
Wells’s great-granddaughter Michelle Duster, who teaches at Columbia College and is currently working on a biography of her ancestor, addressed the crowd at the sign unveiling, describing the civil rights leader as a woman who was born into slavery in Mississippi and stood up to racist intimidation to fight for justice. “Ida B. Wells experienced threats to her life and financial losses as a result of her work,” Duster noted. “Ida B. Wells had the drive and the tenacity to dedicate almost 50 years of her life fighting for African-Americans to have equal opportunity to seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this country.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel also lauded Wells as a trailblazer, saying, “Ida B. Wells wrote, ‘The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them.’ Her words ring true today, just as they did a century and a half ago. In a moment we will unveil a street sign, but this is more than a street sign. . . . All of us who will travel that road will now know something about not only our past, but more importantly, how we bend the arc of history to a better day.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter with the New York Times Magazine, called Wells her “spiritual grandmother” and credited her with helping to inspire her own muckraking. “At the time Ida B. Wells died, she was the most famous black woman in the world,” she said. “And yet it takes [until] 2019 to get a street named in her honor in the city where she is buried. I think that speaks to the way that we have always erased the contribution of black women in this country. And we need to understand that when we name monuments, when we name streets, we are determining what history is important to remember, and what history we need to forget.”
Also in attendance at the ceremony were South Loop alderman Sophia King and downtown alderman Brendan Reilly, who proposed the ordinance for the street name change; Illinois lieutenant governor Juliana Stratton; Cook County Board president and mayoral hopeful Toni Preckwinkle; and attorney Chaz Ebert, widow of film critic Roger Ebert.
Unmentioned during the hour-long event was that the decision to honor Wells by renaming Congress Drive was also a choice to keep in place a memorial to a man whose values arguably represent the polar opposite of what Wells stood for. King and Reilly had previously proposed honoring Wells by renaming nearby Balbo Drive, a tribute to Italo Balbo, a leader of the brutal Blackshirts, the paramilitary wing of Italy’s National Fascist Party. Balbo helped bring Benito Mussolini to power and later served as his air commander and governor of colonized Libya.
In August 2017, in the wake of the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, King and Reilly 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,” Alderman King said 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.” In May 2018, King and Reilly introduced an ordinance that would have renamed Balbo Drive for Wells.
he following month, however, the aldermen announced that they’d changed their proposal to rename Congress instead. One could argue that it, as a longer, more prominent street than Balbo, it represented a more fitting tribute to Wells.
Apparently they’d been met with stiff opposition from a vocal minority of Balbo fans led by Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans. 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.
DiFrisco told me at the time that the aldermen’s decision was 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. He dismissed the idea that Balbo was no longer an appropriate figure 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.”
At today’s ceremony, Reilly told me that the idea of changing the name of Balbo Drive has been abandoned: “That’s being left alone.” (The Balbo Monument, an ancient Roman pillar that Mussolini donated to Chicago to commemorate Balbo’s flight, stands across the street from Soldier Field in King’s ward, and may eventually get a new interpretive plaque explaining its history.)
Reilly indicated that the vocal opposition from members of the Italian-American community had in fact been the reason for abandoning the renaming effort. “Obviously there were a lot of passionate opinions on that idea, and luckily we had Congress Parkway just a stone’s throw away.”
King confirmed this. “There became so much controversy about [whether the new honoree should be] an Italian- or an African-American, and we thought that Ida B. Wells kind of transcended all that.”
But is King comfortable leaving in place a tribute to a man she previously called a symbol of racism? “Balbo is a name that we need to revisit to determine whether he deserves a street,” she said. “People are nuanced. I think he did some heroic things, but his role in fascism cannot be denied, and he’s not even from Illinois. People in Italy don’t celebrate Balbo, so why should we?”
But Loyola professor Anthony Cardoza, an expert on modern Italian history who’s in favor of removing the Balbo tributes, told me today that with the renaming of Congress for Ida B. Wells, the idea of renaming Balbo Drive appears to be “a dead issue.”
“I still recall Alderman Reilly’s impassioned words at the news conference he held with Alderman King where they announced their support for changing the name of Balbo Drive,” Cardoza said. “But it sounds like political expediency has prevailed over principle.” v