“This summer instead of sitting down on the couch I chose to change the name of the park. I chose to make sure kids felt safe in the park and that they knew the history behind it.”

- Raniya

“I am young, strong and proud. I love myself, myself and my family and my community. I can do anything I set my mind to because I come from a great legacy of men and women. If it’s going to be, it’s up to me….”

Village Leadership Academy Affirmation

In September 2016 a group of powerful 5th graders at Village Leadership Academy began a campaign to memorialize victims of police violence in Chicago. The 5th graders researched methods to humanize victims and positively impact their community with their teacher, Bianca Jones. As the class developed their ideas they discovered Rekia Boyd, one of the victims of police brutality they were researching, had been murdered in Douglas park. The students decided a great way to memorialize Rekia would be to rename the park after her.

Next September, a fresh group of 5th graders in Ms. Jones’ homeroom decided to resume the campaign with the clear goal of researching as a way to ground their analysis and spreading awareness. The students researched Stephen Douglas, Frederick Douglass, North Lawndale, the process of changing park names in Chicago, and action steps to share their findings such as canvassing and petitions. The students discovered that Douglas built the University of Chicago with wealth gained through enslaving Black people. The knowledge of Douglas’ wealth acquisition and political beliefs strengthened the students’ conviction that Douglas should not be honored in a predominantly Black community.

A school wide letter writing campaign led to a meeting with Alderman Michael Scott Jr. During the meeting the students recognized that the likelihood of a successful name change was greater if they chose a prominent historical figure rather than a victim of police violence. The students shifted their demand to rename the park after Frederick Douglass, freedom fighter, orator and women’s rights advocate, instead of Rekia Boyd. The 5th graders assembled their case against honoring Stephen Douglas, the namesake of the park, the remainder of the school year. In June 2017 the class took their first trip to a monthly Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners meeting to present their demand to change the name of Douglas Park.

“The problem was that Douglas park is in a predominantly Black community and the park was named after Stephen Douglas instead of someone who could uplift and empower the Black community.”

- Zari

In March the class launched their Change.org petition to rename Douglas park. The students produced a catchy and informative video. The students felt that the video, which illustrated their findings about Stephen Douglas’ transgressions and Frederick Douglass’ achievements, was imperative because it was accessible to the largest audience. The petition also included information about Douglas Park, the community of North Lawndale, the students’ past organizing and their demands. Following the creation of the petition the students planned and participated in a train takeover to inform ridership of their campaign and attain petition signatures. The students year of intensive research, coalition building and organizing concluded with acknowledgement from a plethora of news outlets such as ABC7 and WGN News.

In September 2016 a group of powerful 5th graders at Village Leadership Academy began a campaign to memorialize victims of police violence in Chicago. The 5th graders researched methods to humanize victims and positively impact their community with their teacher, Bianca Jones. As the class developed their ideas they discovered Rekia Boyd, one of the victims of police brutality they were researching, had been murdered in Douglas park. The students decided a great way to memorialize Rekia would be to rename the park after her.

Who were Anna and Frederick Douglass?

“I think we were underestimated. We’re kind of like the underdog.”

- Zahir

The transition into the 2018-2019 school year brought many changes for the students including their new homeroom teacher, Jennifer Pagan, who became the Change the Name campaign facilitator. The students began canvassing in North Lawndale around Douglas Park. At bustling intersections the students chanted, explained the importance of changing the name to the community and informed community members about the various ways they could get involved. December 4th, 2019 the student organizers submitted their first written proposal to change the namesake of Douglas Park to Frederick Douglass.

As the COVID-19 pandemic and global uprisings in response to police violence against Black people gripped the world, the students breathed new life into their campaign to rename the park. At an outdoor relaunch, the students reiterated their demands and declared a new demand to add Anna Douglass, abolitionist and wife of Frederick Douglass, to the signage. About 200 people attended the event and over 500 people have viewed the campaign’s Instagram reel about the event.

“All the choices I made as an educator were a reflection of the world that I wanted to see and the world that I wanted Black and Brown children to exist in.”

- Jennifer Pagán

Four days later, the Park District Board of Commissioner’s scheduled an emergency meeting. While the board did not mention the work of the activists nor the racial reckoning of the summer of 2020, it was clear to the students that their efforts were working. The only item on the agenda was the Douglas Park name change. The students, happy that their work had finally influenced the Park District Board, continued to strategize. They were getting closer to their goal but knew that they must continue to fight to include Anna Douglass whose historical contributions had been erased just like their multi year efforts to rename the park in the board meeting. Every Saturday that August, the students gathered in North Lawndale for their final effort to ensure as many North Lawndale residents as possible knew about their efforts to change the park name, Anna Douglass’ life, and that they were on the precipice of a historical name change.

“We needed all those obstacles of the campaign to arrive at this place we are now.”

- Bianca Jones

On September 9, 2020 the Park District Board of Commissioners approved the request to remove Stephen Douglas’ name from Park District No. 218. On October 9, 2020 the board upheld its decision to remove Stephen Douglas’ name. On November 18, 2020 after multiple 45 day approval periods, media attention and years of pressure from the student organizers, the campaign culminated in the board’s approval to change the name of the park.

“I’m the proud principal of Village Leadership Academy where young people make history.”

- Principal Harris

Stephen Douglas Park is now Anna and Frederick Douglass Park. A courageous 5th grade class embarked on a year long quest to commemorate one woman from North Lawndale. That quest evolved into three years of organizing to remove the name of an enslaver from a park, rename the park after a freedom fighter, and provide a meaningful symbolic change to the community of North Lawndale. The long and hard-fought grassroot campaign taught the students, their teachers, their administrators and their community many lessons. The most important of those lessons is the power of black youth.

“There really shouldn’t be an age limit for social justice.”

- Zahir

The Change The Name campaign materialized out of the grassroots campaign curriculum at Village Leadership Academy, an independent kindergarten through 8th grade school located in Chicago, IL that offers an innovative approach to learning which includes high academic standards, exposure to world history and geography, appreciation for cultural differences and the development of critical and socially just thinking. 

Supported by: The Field Foundation and NeXt Doc

History and Timeline: Natalie Frazier Photographs: Kaleb Autman and Isiah ThoughtPoet Veney Graphic Designs: Jake “JB” Brode and Jeremiah Shalo  Website Design: Nuree Kim Biographies of Historical Figures: Dr. Guy Mount and University of Chicago Reparations Working Group Produced by: Cai Thomas and Bianca Jones