Judging from contemporary accounts, Chicago founder Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the Black trading post proprietor for whom local African American leaders propose renaming Lake Shore Drive, was a virtuous, cultured, likable, and good-looking man.
While there’s little hard information available about DuSable’s early life, according to tradition he was born in 1745 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. By the late 1700s he was working as a trader in the Great Lakes region, and letters from other traders indicate that in 1779 he was living at the mouth of Trail Creek in present-day Michigan City, Indiana, a stone’s throw from the current Shoreline Brewery location.
In August of that year, during the thick of the American Revolution, DuSable was briefly imprisoned by the British at Fort Michilimackinac, near Mackinac Island, under suspicion of being a Patriot sympathizer. But a report from an officer said multiple friends of DuSable testified that he was a man of good character. The fort’s commander Arent DePeyster was also impressed, later describing him as a “handsome Negro” and “well educated.”
Records show that in 1788 DuSable married a Potawatomi woman named Kitihawa, with whom he had a son named Jean and a daughter named Susanne, in a Catholic ceremony in Cahokia, Illinois, near St. Louis.
A 1790 account by trader Hugh Heward is the earliest record of DuSable’s trading post on the north bank of the Chicago River, just east of the present-day Michigan Avenue bridge, making him the first non-Native permanent settler of the area. Wisconsinsite Augustin Grignon wrote that his brother Perrish visited the settlement around 1794 and described DuSable as “a large man . . . pretty wealthy, [who] drank freely.”
When DuSable sold his homestead in 1800 to Jean La Lime, a front man for Scots-Irish trader John Kinzie, DuSable’s prosperity was evidenced in the bill of sale, which included a log cabin with upscale furniture and paintings. The complex also included two barns, a mill, bakery, poultry house, dairy, and smokehouse. DuSable then moved to St. Charles, Missouri, now a northwest suburb of St. Louis, where he was licensed to operate a Missouri River ferry, and died there in 1818.
While DuSable was liked and respected by contemporaries, for many years the city of Chicago failed to properly acknowledge his role in founding the settlement that grew into our current metropolis, with Kinzie often getting the credit instead. There was a racial element to that lack of recognition. For example, a plaque installed near the trading post site in 1913 stated, “Here was born in 1805 the city’s first white [emphasis added] child—Ellen Marion Kinzie,” erasing the fact that DuSable’s family had previously settled the area. And that was despite the fact that John Kinzie eventually stabbed La Lime to death, a slaying known as “the first murder in Chicago.”
Later in the 20th century, DuSable finally began to get his due, with Chicago tributes including a high school, a harbor, and the DuSable Museum of African American History. The Michigan Avenue bridge, where a bust of DuSable was installed in 2009, is officially called the DuSable Bridge, although my guess is that few residents are aware of that. In 1987 Mayor Harold Washington announced plans for DuSable Park on a 3.24 acre chunk of lakeside land near Navy Pier, but it still sits undeveloped more than three decades later.
For years local Black leaders have been calling for a grander, citywide tribute to the pioneer, arguing that our city’s iconic beachfront highway should be renamed DuSable Drive. It’s especially fitting since Point du Sable translates to “Point of Sand.”
In 1993 advocates approached Cook County president Toni Preckwinkle, then an alderman, and her Council colleague Madeline Haithcock about the name change, and the politicians proposed an ordinance to rename the south half of Lake Shore Drive. That would have required almost no address changes, since there were few residences or institutions on that stretch. But then-mayor Richard M. Daley was opposed, and the legislation died in committee.
“We got a lot of pushback,” Preckwinkle told me. “This is a city in which we have innumerable monuments and streets named after white people, and the fact that there was so much resistance was illuminating . . . We live in a country where the accomplishments of Black people are often diminished and denigrated and marginalized.”
Recently the group Black Heroes Matter has pushed for renaming LSD for DuSable, as well as establishing a city holiday in his honor, and erecting a 25-foot-tall monument in Grant Park at Ida B. Wells Drive, which itself was renamed last year for the African American investigative journalist, anti-lynching activist, and suffragist.
In October 2019 17th Ward alderman David Moore introduced a new DuSable Drive ordinance, which he said was partly inspired by advocacy by south-side CPS students. The current proposal calls for renaming the roadway for its entire length, but cleverly omits the westernmost surface-street lanes, commonly known as the “Inner Drive.” That means that almost none of the roughly 12,000 institutions, businesses, and residences along the highway would need to change their prestigious Lake Shore Drive addresses.
During discussions of the plan in December at the Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way, BHM leader Ephraim Martin argued that this major tribute to the trailblazer would help heal our city’s past racial injustices, such as the 1980s effort by a bloc of white aldermen to thwart Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, nicknamed the Council Wars. “Give to DuSable what is due to DuSable, Chicago’s founding father,” Martin said.
But during the name-change hearings, indicted 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke, who helped lead the racially-charged opposition to Washington, called the name proposal “unprecedented” and “troubling,” arguing that it would be a major hassle for thousands of residents, whom Burke said would have to change their insurance records, drivers’ licenses, and other documents.
Moore passionately clapped back at that strawman argument. “This is some B.S., to start out this thing with fearmongering, because that part was taken off the table and shouldn’t even be brought up in this discussion.”
Committee chair 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins said a vote on the ordinance could take place by April.
Mayor Lightfoot hasn’t taken a position on the issue but said in a statement, “Jean Baptiste Point du Sable played a critical role in Chicago’s history . . . I look forward to continuing the conversation with the various stakeholders to find a way to enshrine his legacy.”
Opinion pieces from local media outlets have expressed skepticism or opposition to Moore’s plan. A Sun-Times editorial said the paper was on the fence about the idea, “but we do know this: Rather than have aldermen suggest street renaming in an ad hoc fashion . . . there must be a more formalized and predictable process.”
A Tribune editorial was strongly opposed, arguing, “Honor DuSable but keep Lake Shore Drive . . . it’s an institution.” The paper proposed instead renaming the Dan Ryan Expressway, which runs almost entirely through African American communities. That idea is reminiscent of how, following the assassination of Martin Lurther King Jr., then-mayor Richard J. Daley “honored” King, a champion of racial integration, by renaming a boulevard that ran exclusively through Black neighborhoods.
Former Reader editor Mark Konkol published an op-ed in Patch arguing that Chicago should “Ditch the arbitrary call to rename Lake Shore Drive for DuSable.” As with Burke, this wouldn’t be the first time Konkol has been on the wrong side of a race-related issue. He was fired from this publication in 2018 after only two weeks on the job, after he ran a cover cartoon depicting then-gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker sitting on a Black lawn jockey, symbolizing “the Black vote.”
Predictably, Alderman Moore was unimpressed by the above arguments. “These editorials were probably written by some white men who are trying to tell Black people how we should recognize our heroes,” he told me.
My take on the DuSable Drive issue? In the wake of this year’s police murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests demanding a racial reckoning, turning our city’s founder into a household name would make a powerful statement, uplifting an exemplary Black life. And as an adventurous, forward-thinking entrepreneur whose settlement was a meeting place for traders of many backgrounds—French, English, and Indigenous—DuSable is an excellent role model for Chicago youth of all colors.
Moreover, giving Jean Baptiste Point du Sable this epic, well-deserved honor doesn’t mean we have to drop LSD altogether. Again, those who live or work on the Inner Drive won’t need to change their addresses. And I’m sure many Chicagoans will continue to call the outer lanes Lake Shore Drive, just as lots of us still refer to the Willis Tower, 875 North Michigan Avenue, and whatever Sox Park is officially called nowadays, by their old names. That’s totally OK.
You’ll still be able to enjoy cruising the lakefront blasting Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah‘s rollicking ode to the roadway. Except that now when it comes to the lyric, “There ain’t no finer place to be, than running Lake Shore Drive,” many Chicagoans will argue that running DuSable Drive is even finer. v