Chicago's Monuments to White Supremacy Must Fall

Antiracists must continue the fight to remove Confederate monuments, lower Confederate flags, and rename places that honor Confederates.

But we also must address other statues and places dedicated to the advocacy of white supremacy and its supporters. Today, a tendency persists in too many communities outside the South to ignore their own “dirty laundry.”

As historians have long known and is now becoming more commonly understood (in no small part thanks to the #1619Project), slavery was a national issue. The entire US economy, particularly its emerging industrial sector, was inextricably linked to the “peculiar institution.” Most importantly, enslaved people grew the cotton essential to the burgeoning textile factories in New England. Thus, it should not be surprising that some of slavery’s greatest defenders lived outside the South.

US Senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) of Illinois, among the nation’s most powerful politicians prior to the Civil War, fully embraced white supremacy and staunchly opposed efforts to abolish slavery. Yet rather than being described as pro-slavery and racist, Douglas generally is depicted as a national statesman who sought to avoid disunion by brokering political compromises. The fact that his wealth came from his Mississippi plantation, worked by more than a hundred enslaved Black people, is also routinely omitted.

In Chicago, where he lived for decades, there exists a state memorial dedicated to him and a city park named after him. These public spaces now present opportunities to eradicate symbols honoring hate. Renaming the park and dramatically reworking the interpretative signs at the memorial give Chicagoans and all Illinoisans a chance to “own” their racist past, as embodied in one of the North’s “greatest” defenders of slavery.

Chicagoans should be rightly proud of their recent successes in fighting racism. Over the course of a decade, the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials convinced the City to apologize for the systematic police torture of Black men and women and pay reparations to some victims.

However, the still-needed statue remains in the planning stages. Similarly, the renaming of a major downtown street to honor long-time Chicagoan, Ida B. Wells, was a big victory. Many people, including Michelle Duster, one of her great-granddaughters, also raised funds for a statue by Richard Hunt worthy of the legendary anti-lynching, civil rights, and women’s rights activist.

Despite these notable achievements, just blocks from where the Wells statue will stand in Bronzeville, the city’s most historic Black neighborhood, lies a state park housing the tomb and memorial to Stephen A. Douglas. If Americans today know anything about this white man, it is from the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. Douglas arguably lost those debates, but he retained his Senate seat, where he continued to vociferously oppose abolishing slavery — the institution that made him rich.

Douglas amassed his personal fortune from the labor of enslaved Black people, representing decades of brutal exploitation. His first wife came from a very wealthy planter family. When Douglas’ father-in-law died, his wife inherited a 2,500-acre cotton plantation in Mississippi and more than a hundred enslaved African Americans. According to the law, the wife’s property essentially was the husband’s.

Curiously, the fact Douglas profited from enslaved labor rarely gets mentioned. One Illinois state website refers to him as a “distinguished statesman.”

Paeans to his supposed greatness ignore his financial stake in slavery. Even encyclopedias like Britannica, engage in sophistry: “Douglas himself was not a slaveholder, though his wife was.”

Douglas’ tremendous wealth included vast acreage in Chicago and its suburbs: “160 acres near 31st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue [the location of his tomb and state memorial], which became the nucleus of the Douglas neighborhood [also called Bronzeville]; 2,964 acres in the Calumet region; and 4,610 acres from the Illinois Central Railroad.” His fortune, undeniably, came from selling cotton produced by enslaved Black people as well as selling the enslaved. Caine Jordan, Guy Emerson Mount, and Kai Parker, part of the Reparations at UChicago Working Group, cite evidence that those enslaved by Douglas were treated badly even by Mississippi standards!

Moreover, his vigorous defense of slavery — right up to the Civil War — and racism are swept aside with a nod and tacit acceptance, at least by white people, that white supremacy was the norm in antebellum America.

While not incorrect, there were white folks (and of course nearly every Black person) who at that time loudly condemned the institution of slavery and worked to abolish it.

By contrast, Lincoln condemned slavery in both moral and political terms. Most famously, in 1858 Lincoln asserted, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Though undeniably guilty of racism, Lincoln took a consistent moral stance against slavery, proclaiming, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” In one 1858 debate, Douglas labeled Lincoln a “Black Republican.” At another debate, Douglas stated he did not “regard the Negro as my equal, and positively deny that he is my brother, or any kin to me whatever.”

Yet, the Douglas Tomb State Historic Site exists in the heart of Bronzeville. A large sculpture stands atop a hundred-foot granite pillar. Ironically, the word “Justice” is emblazoned on his mausoleum alongside the claim he aided “the advance of American civilization.” Not a single mention of his enslavement of scores of people tarnishes the “interpretive” signs on-site.

It also is ironic Douglas lived in an area — even officially named for him — that generations later became the heart of Black Chicago Admittedly, when Douglas lived in Chicago, few Black people lived in the city. Starting in the 1910s, this neighborhood became increasingly African American. In 2019, the two-acre state park sits in the middle of a heavily Black part of the city. Not surprisingly, local Black people who know this history have little positive to say about Douglas. Sherry Williams, founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society, recalled, “People don’t really remember Douglas as a slaveholder… This is where his wealth came from.”

At the very least, the park’s signage must be reworked drastically to center how he personally enslaved Black people and profited from it. The signage also needs to much more clearly explain his work to preserve the institution as well as how he race-baited Lincoln and others who sought to limit or abolish slavery.

Six miles northwest, one of the city’s most prominent parks also is named for Douglas. Located in North Lawndale and Little Village, on Chicago’s West Side, residents long have been predominantly Black and Brown.

Chicagoans have discussed changing the name before. There is a simple fix As fifth-grader Kirk Kelly declared at a 2017 Chicago Park District meeting, “My class of freedom fighters and I have come to make the world a better place by asking you to change Stephen Douglas Park to Frederick Douglass Park." Douglass is an ideal replacement as he freed himself from slavery and became the most prominent abolitionist and equal rights activist of his generation. Just add an “s” to the name!

More widely, the issue of who we honor — and how we do so — speaks to the related one of historical memory. When we remember this past, the question becomes how to educate people that the North was fully complicit in and cognizant of the crimes and horrors of slavery. Cities like Chicago and states like Illinois benefited from slave labor, too.

Moreover, that Douglas’ personal fortune was due to slavery essentially has been “disappeared” in plain sight. He loudly defended slavery and embraced a full-throated white supremacy. Drastically reworking signage and websites are a minimum. Holding public events to address historical interpretation about slavery and race also are vital. Revising curriculum at schools also should be done.

Confederate monuments, thus, are not the only ones that must fall. We must rid Chicago (and the entire country) of monuments and place-names that celebrate defenders of slavery and white supremacy. Doing so is not erasing history — we still must study the past, warts and all. But we no longer should be honoring racist slaveholders. Instead, we must fight for a society more fully committed to America’s most cherished ideals, freedom and equality.


About the Author

Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University and Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Cole is the author of the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area and Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia He also is the founder and co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project