All sorts of talk is taking place in the Chicago City Council lately of renaming little Balbo Drive downtown for Ida Bell Wells, the great Chicago civil rights activist and investigative reporter. The short street, at 700 South, culminates in Grant Park and is named after Italian Italo Balbo, who was a Mussolini consigliere. Kind of like the Karl Rove figure was to the George W. Bush figure in American politics, I am guessing.
The street is named after Balbo because he led an Italian airplane armada over to our 1933 World's Fair, which apparently impressed us enough to name a short expanse of street after him. Fascist or no fascist. (By the way, he opposed aligning with nazis, and he opposed anti-semitism.)
There's also talk of tearing down a monument dedicated to 4000 Confederate soldiers buried beneath it in a mass grave at Oak Woods cemetery. These soldiers were captured by the Union side and died at Camp Douglas on the near south side during the Civil War. It just so happens that Wells' grave is in its shadow at Oak Woods. And some think a monument to her should replace the one to them.
An ironic juxtaposition. But perhaps a teachable one? Still, people don't like that the confederates are literally overshadowing a great civil rights activist. And that I can certainly understand.
At one time, Ida B. Wells, who was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, had a large Chicago public housing project named after her. Built between 1939 and 1941, it was bordered by Cottage Grove, King Drive, 37th and 39th Streets. But it was completely torn down by 2011.
Wells moved to Chicago in 1895 and married Ferdinand Lee Barnett, editor of the Chicago Conservator, one of the first major black newspapers in town. From 1919 until 1930 she lived with her husband and children in an impressive (now landmarked) house built in 1889 on the 3600 block of King Drive. I know the person who lives in it now.
She was also one of the founders of the NAACP.
Ida B. Wells definitely deserves Chicago's official recognition. She was outspoken, hardworking and made history in many ways, both as a civil rights activist and as an outstanding journalist. But simply renaming a simple little nothing-type street like Balbo after her makes no sense. It's like a retread, a hand me down, so used and shopworn.
Leave little Balbo Drive alone, if for no other reason that it can rekindle talk of who the fascists were. And why we fought against them in World War II. Not to mention the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago--and why Italians were flying armadas to it.
Since we can't rename King Drive for Ida B. Wells--that's already been renamed for Dr. Martin Luther King from the former South Park Way--why not rename Cottage Grove Avenue for Ida B. Wells? The words Cottage Grove aren't exactly iconic, descriptive or meaningfully historic; nor does it make any sense. Cottage Grove? Perhaps the name of some small subdivision of homes back in the day? It's in a perfect location for recognizing the work she did; it runs about 100 blocks south through the city.
Of course we already have a Wells Street--so all the more reason to bestow her full name on a main street like Cottage Grove; make it Ida B. Wells Avenue. To distinguish it from the other plain old Wells Street, which runs north and south at 200 west.
As far as a monument, she should have her very own. Not a replacement as some are advocating. Plans are afoot to put a very impressive one in Bronzeville, where she lived and worked. And that makes total sense.
Most of the 4000 soldiers buried near her in Oak Woods lost the war and probably didn't even know what they were doing. Or why. They were young men who more than likely got mixed up in the Civil War for all sorts of reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with keeping slavery alive. So let them be remembered as human beings who gave up their lives as American soldiers, such as it was, and who didn't really know any better.
Why should we erase bad history? If we do, we are doomed to repeat it. Don't cover it up, whether it's fascism or racism. Study it, find out why. And vow to be better--and fight it when it rears its ugly head . If we erase it, we won't even know it when it rears its ugly head.
No one ever talks of renaming Kinzie Street, although they'll tell you at the Chicago History Museum that Kinzie, one of the city fathers before Chicago was even a real city, most probably was a murderer, that he committed treason and that he cheated in acquiring land. Kinzie Street seems like a good prospect for renaming if we want to bury bad history, doesn't it?? But no one ever mentions it.
One of Ida B. Wells' most vociferous and hard fought fights was exposing lynching for what it was. At one time, even she thought that those lynched were being lynched for a reason--a rape, for instance. But in her journalistic investigations, she realized that that wasn't true at all. And that one of the reasons for lynching was eliminating black retail competition in the south. In the grocery business, for example.
So a new memorial in honor of lynching victims in Montgomery, Alabama will honor Wells and other women. One that certainly won't bury those dreadful, immoral, hateful and despicable murders. But rather one that will highlight the truth of what happened and the job of uncovering that truth.
That's the way that the past and present can meet up and hopefully create a much better future. But if it gets buried, we get buried--and all the lessons learned do, too.
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