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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Now That the Obama Library Is Going There, Is It Time to Rename Jackson Park?

The future home of the library of our first black president is named after a slave owner and perpetrator of genocide.

Jackson Park, named after President Andrew Jackson, is Chicago's third largest park.  Photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune; Public Domain

The Obamas have decided that his library and museum will be built in the South Side’s Jackson Park—that’s (Andrew) Jackson Park, named for the President of the United States from 1829 to 1837.

Jackson (aka “Old Hickory) was a Democrat, a populist—he wanted to eliminate the electoral college—a major general, and, as such, hero of the War of 1812.

He was also an owner of slaves and enemy of native Americans.

Forever associated with Andrew Jackson’s name is the Trail of Tears, the forced evacuation of Indian tribes from land they had cultivated for generations in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee. Native Americans were marched, some in chains and without adequate food, supplies, or government help, thousands of miles away to Indian territories, mostly in present-day Oklahoma. The point was to open that land to white settlers who then used it to grow cotton.

Jackson called the program “Indian removal,” and, in 1830, while president, signed the Indian Removal Act.

The seventh president, who died in 1845, was back in the news earlier this year because of Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew’s decision to replace Jackson on the front of the $20 bill with former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman. (The plan calls for a smaller image of Jackson to appear on the bill’s back.)

Chicago is home to two Jackson Parks, the much smaller and less grand of which is located in the south side neighborhood of Auburn Gresham. It’s named after Mahalia Jackson. The late singer, known as the “Queen of Gospel,” was born in New Orleans and moved to Chicago as a teenager. At the request of Martin Luther King, Jr., she sang at the 1963 March on Washington. (She also sang at JFK’s inauguration and at King’s funeral).

How about flipping the names? Granted, the residents of Auburn Gresham might vociferously object and want to select their own namesake.

Changing the park’s name may sound reasonable, but, as anyone who has ever turned onto Balbo Drive—named for a leading fascist, Italo Balbo, Benito Mussolini’s air force commander—can attest, it’s not always easy to make such changes. In 2011 there was a strong move, including a Chicago Tribune editorial, advocating the change, but the name Balbo still stands.

It’s worth noting that Washington Park, the scruffier of the two parks considered by the Obamas (both were designed by  Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux), is named for the first president, George, also a slave owner, albeit a somewhat reluctant one.  His 1799 will instructed that his slaves be freed.

All this got me thinking about the park up the street from my house—Bauler Playlot Park, originally named Ash Park in 1970, after the tree. It was renamed in 1980 after Paddy Bauler, the 43rd Ward alderman and Democratic ward committee, who was famous for saying, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.”

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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