A civil rights champion in her day, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was known for many things.
She was an African-American journalist who worked to expose lynchings. She pushed for women’s right to vote. She started numerous organizations to help African-Americans gain economic and political power in Chicago and the country. She created the first kindergarten for black children.
Now, a group of Chicago aldermen are pushing to rechristen downtown’s Balbo Drive in her honor as Wells Drive.
“I believe Mrs. Wells’ legacy speaks for itself,” Ald. Sophia King said.
Brendan Reilly thought renaming the street in honor of Wells would be appropriate. It would be the first official street name change in Chicago since 1968, when the city renamed South Park Way for Martin Luther King Jr., King said.
Chicago already has a Wells Street, creating some potential for confusion, though the current Wells and Balbo do not intersect. Balbo Drive is a fairly short road downtown.
Gen. Italo Balbo was an Italian pilot who helped dictator Benito Mussolini rise to power and led an airplane armada visit to Chicago during the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933. The city renamed Seventh Street after Balbo.
Debate over whether Chicago should rename the street, and whether to remove a monument in Balbo’s honor, dates back to the 1940s, and efforts to do so have met with resistance from some Italian-Americans. It was renewed last summer in the aftermath of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Last year, protesters turned up at the Balbo monument in Burnham Park calling for its removal. An inscription on the monument’s base says Mussolini presented Chicago with the ancient Roman pillar in commemoration of Balbo’s flight to the city.
An online petition last year called for renaming Balbo Drive after Wells.
Lou Rago, president of the Italian American Human Relations Foundation, said there’s “no mistake” that Balbo was a fascist, but supports keeping Balbo Drive unchanged. The honor, Rago said, was bestowed on Balbo not because of his politics, but for his aviation feats that included leading the squadron of Italian airplanes across the Atlantic Ocean, from Rome to Chicago.
“Why do they keep on picking on Balbo?” Rago said. “I don’t understand why the city council who has problems making the school system work — I can give you probably a litany of other problems the city has — why they’re so concerned about renaming a couple of blocks that depict and denote part of Chicago’s great history. Surely there’s got to be another street they can put Ida B. Wells’ name on.”
Other aldermen who stood in support of the measure included Michael Scott Jr., Pat Dowell, Deborah Mell, Emma Mitts and Milly Santiago.
But the rollout was marred by protests. A contingent from the Fraternal Order of Police arrived to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and counterdemonstrators stood in the hallway shouting at them.
While King spoke, she sometimes was drowned out by a crowd of dozens chanting, “Stop killing our youth!”
The ceremony included Dan Duster, Wells’ great-grandson, who thanked the city and aldermen and praised her legacy. He was jeered at one point by a woman waiting to enter the council chambers, who shouted, “Whatever!” at him.
Asked about possible Italian-American opposition to the street renaming effort, Reilly, 42nd, said there are other Italian-Americans more deserving of the honor. Reilly said there’s discussion around naming Congress Parkway downtown after an Italian-American and renaming Museum Drive as Special Olympics Way as part of a broader shakeup.
Later, Emanuel said he understands the “spirit and energy” behind the ordinance and wants the city to recognize Wells, whether it’s a statue or a street name. But he did not specifically endorse renaming Balbo Drive.
“We’re going to have that discussion,” he said.