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How did we do it?
The research process is a learning process. Through our exploration of history, we developed a relationship to the stories of our ancestors’ resistance and contributions, along with an understanding of systemic inequity in North Lawndale. Our methods included an in depth presentation from historian Dr. Guy Mount who shared documentation and accounts of the 123 people enslaved on Stephen Douglas’ Lawrence Co., MS plantation. Dr. Elizabeth Todd-Breland, historian at University of Illinois at Chicago, shared her knowledge of white flight, racial restrictive covenants and housing descrimination, and the legacy of Dr. King’s infamous stay in North Lawndale. Additionally, we read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and conducted countless internet searches to gather information about Douglass’s many accomplishments and contributions to the abolitionist movement. This insight enabled us to argue that a monument to Stephen Douglas is a monument to white supremacy — an insult in a predominantly Black community. Black people deserve monuments that serve as symbols of our greatness, resistance, and liberation.
Once the seed was planted that we should initiate this charge to rename Douglas Park, we immediately identified who had the ability to make the change: the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners. From that moment, our mission was to apply pressure to the board through our petition and presentations at their meetings. Our Change.org petition garnered over 10,000 signatures from people all over the world. The message was always clear: choose to be on the RIGHT side of history!
Partnering with allies who extended their resources to us was arguably most crucial to our success. Historians grounded our analysis. Journalists increased awareness and legitimized our message. Organizers joined us in the fight. The work of documentarians ensures that the world will forever know that Black youth and women led one of the first successful park renamings in the country. Our collaborations with artists however, hold a special place in our hearts. Through art, we could process and understand. Through art we established a visual identity that gave a bold, aesthetic form to our ethos of youthful determination.
Without education, this movement would have existed in a bubble. Our most frequently used tactic, canvassing, granted us the privilege of spending time in the park in order to build relationships with elders, students from Johnson Elementary School, and families hosting events in the park. We were always received warmly. Often dismayed when learning about Stephen Douglas’ transgressions, and typically responding indignantly to the news of Anna Murray Douglass’ erasure, folks consistently encouraged us to continue the fight.
After our first presentation to the Park District Board of Commissioners — despite our excellence and conviction — one member dismissively remarked, “I wonder what next year’s project will be?” The gravity of our campaign was inconceivable to him. Despite being constantly underestimated, experiencing a change in leadership, and a global pandemic and racial uprising, the young freedom fighters of Village Leadership Academy remained confident and stayed the course- determined to land on the right side of history.
Work shouldn’t always feel like work, especially when it’s work done for the love of people and community. We will forever cherish the memories of talking and laughing on the train during takeovers, screaming in the park, running to the jungle gym when Ms. Jones or Ms. Pagán gave us a break from canvassing, and ending our days with ICEEs from McDonalds. We started this campaign as friends. We ended as friends who made history.
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