CHICAGO — Ephraim Martin has been asking Chicago, and asking Chicago, and asking Chicago, for years to honor Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the first permanent non-indigenous settler of the land that became Chicago. He’s been asking for nearly 30 years. He’s asked the city to erect a 25-foot statue of DuSable, and to create a DuSable city holiday. He also wants Lake Shore Drive renamed for DuSable. He’s been pushing the idea for ages. Martin, like DuSable, was an immigrant: DuSable was Haitian, and Martin, chairperson of the Black Heroes Matter coalition and a longtime festival organizer in Chicago, is from Jamaica. But soon after he arrived in 1980 and found work at the Chicago Defender, he realized he already shared something in common with many native Chicagoans: He’d never heard of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, either.
“I was at a function with Harold Washington, a congressman then, and he started telling these kids about DuSable, and their reaction was like my reaction: ‘What? Wow! A Black man started Chicago? No, I had no idea.’ It felt almost, I don’t know, illegal then for a Black person to be recognized that way. Yet still he’s never received full respect. He’s treated sort of like a footnote in this city. So after George Floyd, we increased the push.”
About 25 years ago, an initial pitch to rename Lake Shore in honor of DuSable — led by artist, poet and DuSable Museum of African American History co-founder Margaret Burroughs — stalled out quickly. But last week, Chicago City Council faced a new proposal — introduced two years ago by Ald. David Moore (17th Ward) — to rename 17 miles of Lake Shore for DuSable, and this time, the idea sailed unanimously through a Council committee, until ...
The final vote was delayed.
Still, chances are, now you know DuSable.
Alverne Ball, a writer who lives in Joliet, Illinois, grew up on the West Side of Chicago, and whenever he went downtown, “one of the things that always pissed me off was this: OK, so there’s a museum named for DuSable (in Washington Park) and there’s a school (in Bronzeville), but in any other city there would be at least some huge statue of this man. I mean, there are (statues) for people who did far less for Chicago, never mind actually found the place. Instead, DuSable gets this little bust on Michigan Avenue.” Indeed, it’s tucked into a corner of Pioneer Court, alongside the Chicago River, solemn, overlooked.
Almost like a metaphor for underrepresented Black historical figures and milestones.
“But after a year of standing up to oppressive systems, it’s a perfect time to change that,” Ball said, to thread DuSable, and many others, into the wider American narrative.
Indeed, it’s already happening.
Consider the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, which began 100 years ago this Memorial Day and killed between 70 and 300 people. The actual number is a mystery. The massacre itself, one of the worst instances of racial violence in the nation’s history, was not widely known or even written about for decades. White mobs, using a rumor of a Black man assaulting a white woman, destroyed and firebombed the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a burgeoning Black community full of self-sustaining Black-owned businesses. Dozens were murdered. So rabid was the mob, some took to airplanes, dropping bombs of turpentine. Ball and Stacey Robinson, an assistant professor of graphic design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, recently published a graphic novel, “Across the Tracks: Remembering Greenwood, Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre.” Its emphasis, though, is less on the devastation than resilience, rebuilding, fighting back.
It’s a reframing of a place and event that, for many Americans, never happened.
“As a country, it seems we’re more progressive about covering up our history, or simply just not recognizing some moments in our history, than anything else,” Robinson said.
Greenwood had been so successful, it was nicknamed the Black Wall Street. “It was kind of discussed by Black people almost in a fairy-tale way,” Ball said. “But as you got older, you heard about the killings. I bet this is still new to most people. Probably they had not even heard about Greenwood until HBO did ‘Watchmen.’” That acclaimed 2019 series centered on a century-long conspiracy to bury to the memory of Greenwood.
Which, in many ways, minus the superheroes, jibes with “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Search for Justice,” a new history from Scott Ellsworth, a lecturer at the University of Michigan. He begins with the basic facts of Greenwood and the massacre, then focuses on, well, a century-long conspiracy to bury the Tulsa Massacre. He writes of conspicuously absent files, a silent local media, whispers of mass graves.
“See Black people and white people ‘remember’ American history differently,” he said. “If it’s the ’50s, white people might think Truman and sock hops, but Black people might think the murder of Emmett Till. We’re in an age of re-evaluation in this country. We’re at a crossroads. And we’re realizing: We may have one history, but we view it differently.”
Even less known than Greenwood is the story of Cairo, Illinois, which sits on the Missouri border. It’s a centerpiece of “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s,” a fresh evaluation of Black protests against abusive policing, the kind often translated reductively as “rioting” and images of burning cities. Yale University historian Elizabeth Hinton documents how a generation of police policy, paired with civic neglect and white supremacist intimidations, flattened Cairo economically, socially and literally, for most of the 1960s — until Black residents fought back in a series of “rebellions” that lasted into the 1970s. Through the book, Hinton reframes the violence in Cairo — and Detroit, and Los Angeles — as “rebellions.”
“Of course I’ve gotten a lot of pushback using that word,” she said. “But that’s also part of a reexamining history. We’re seeing serious expansion and reframing of American history now, and sometimes it’s a history that tells the big lies, and educates on the roots of social ills. I see it as a really exciting moment for history, a renaissance pushing at the boundaries of long-held narratives. But again, naturally, that means big backlash.”
History is not fixed, chiseled or set.
History roils, splinters, and reappraises, rarely staying its old self. None of which is new, of course — Faulkner’s often-quoted “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” has long passed into conventional wisdom. Still, among the byproducts of the so-called reckoning on race spurred by protests and soul-searching after George Floyd’s murder, is a renewed drive to recognize how extensively Black Americans fit into the nation’s story beyond the usual markers like the civil rights movement, Harriet Tubman, slavery.
“I’ve been wondering if it’s partly driven by the questioning of our public monuments,” said Annette Gordon-Reed, the Harvard University historian best known for her Pulitzer-winning “The Hemingses of Monticello,” which told the long-buried history of Thomas Jefferson as not merely a prolific slave holder but as father to the children born to slaves. “There’s a new generation saying ‘We have different heroes.’ Who or what is considered vital? That changes. Palates can expand. People want their values upheld.”
Her new book, “On Juneteenth,” is something of a memoir of growing up in Texas — where June 19 is a long-held state holiday marking the emancipation of enslaved Texans — paired with an argument for broadening Juneteenth into a national holiday. (Serendipitously enough, just this week, the Illinois House passed a bill that would make June 19 a paid state holiday; though a similar bill is now in the Illinois Senate, this new proposal is now headed for the governor’s desk.)
“What I really wanted to do was get people thinking differently about Texas,” she said. “Race is not what comes to mind, yet it’s a big state and its most populous part was a plantation society. But what’s happening in general is a change in how we write history, the voices we hear and the hypervigilant questioning of voices we’ve always heard.”
For example, released earlier this year, “Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction,” by Northwestern University historian Kate Masur, asks a compelling and surprisingly little-raised question of American history: How, at a time when Black people were denied many rights and protections, did we get the Fourteenth Amendment, securing equal protection for all Americans, including the enslaved?
Her answer, essentially, is a civil rights movement 1.0, coalitions of Black and white Americans agitating against repressive laws, an activism that predated the ’60s civil rights movement by a century. Among its heroes is activist John Jones, who was born free in North Carolina but settled in Chicago: “The fastest-growing city was a place where a man like John Jones could find a way into public life,” Masur writes. History echoes here. The state is conservative but Chicago is not. Chicago City Council refuses to enforce draconian federal ordinances, and the Underground Railroad operates here largely in the open. Using letters in the nascent Chicago Tribune as a platform, Jones became an influential opponent of mid-19th century laws that effectively refused most forms of Black immigration to Illinois — laws that were extreme even for the 1840s. It’s a history that, by the end of Masur’s book, shows how the ’60s civil rights movement was partly about demanding enforcement of the changes won a hundred years earlier.
“I was basically asking a different question than other historians,” she said. “When it comes to Black Americans in a lot of our history, there’s a preoccupation with slavery and the Civil War, and what historians should do is say new things. There is room for the same old things said better, but if it’s all historians did, it wouldn’t be interesting. The draw of the Tulsa story, for instance, is a tragic event many Americans did not know, and yet the question remains: What should be done? Once we know how much was stolen — beyond slavery — once we know the lynchings, arson, OK what do we do with this? We’re coming face to face with profound questions, and one thing you see is a fear that something bad might happen if we learn the truth about our history. A lot of people are energized by the work being done with African-American history now but an even broader swatch of America seems to be concerned with what that history will say.”
This, unsurprisingly, is one of the most active fronts of our culture wars.
The City Council debate over renaming Lake Shore Drive got ugly, with Ald. Moore calling last-minute changes “racist (expletive).” The 2018 renaming of Congress Parkway for pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells became similarly heated. Despite the lingering impact of the Pulitzer-winning “1619 Project” for the New York Times — which put human bondage and Black achievement at the center of American history — Nikole Hannah-Jones, one of its architects, was denied tenure (in a typically tenured job) at the University of North Carolina. As popular as critical race theory has become — i.e., 40-year-old concepts that consider the racist frameworks of long-standing institutions and policies — legislatures in several states are scrambling to reject the teaching of histories that detail legacies of racism.
Which, of course, is also far from new.
Ellsworth, the Tulsa Race Massacre historian, grew up in Tulsa, across the street from a former Tulsa mayor. When he returned home from college in the mid ’70s and told his neighbor that he was researching the massacre, “his mouth fell open and he said, ‘Don’t do that.’ Because, by the 1970s, there was a culture in Oklahoma of not discussing it.”
Among the figures in his new history of the massacre is Nancy Feldman of Highland Park. She moved to Tulsa after getting married, taught sociology the University of Tulsa and became friends with a local health department official named Robert Lee Fairchild. He told her about the massacre. Indeed, as a native of Greenwood, he had watched it himself. The story reminded her of another relatively obscure act of mob violence, Chicago’s Red Summer of 1919: Beachgoers threw rocks a group of Black teenagers floating on a raft into a whites-only beach area, the situation exploding into violence that left more than three dozen dead. Greenwood, though, was many times larger, and Feldman asked Fairchild to tell her class the story. Though the massacre had only happened 30 years earlier, not one student had heard of it. Feldman asked the students to ask their parents about it. The parents denied it ever happened, and soon enough, Feldman was bring marched to the dean of the school, who threatened to fire her.
Not until Ellsworth’s initial 1981 book about the massacre, “Death in a Promised Land,” was there a concerted retelling. In fact, until last month, despite decades of pioneering research on the killings, he had never been invited to speak at University of Oklahoma about the massacre.
Grace Leatherman, executive director for the National Council for History Education, hears often from history teachers these days who want more variety, overlooked figures and marginalized communities in their lessons: “They want traumatic events taught, but they also want to leave room for resilience and joy.” She adds in the next breath, “The concern right now is that they’re being restricted in some places.” Ask LaGarrett King, founding director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri, about the barriers to teaching a more expansive Black history and he says: “Well, we don’t see resistant teachers, but we see teachers concerned about conservative parents, or just teaching the material correctly. The big problem is the knowledge base. An average elementary teacher alone had one or two history courses in college.” So, there’s a lag between publication of a critical reframing like Hinton’s “America on Fire” or Masur’s “Until Justice Be Done” and those ideas finding a teacher.
Which is why, next month, at the Carter Center’s annual conference on teaching Black history, usually attended by a few thousand teachers, the spotlight falls on Greenwood.
But King said, “in terms of a holistically taught curriculum,” he’d like to see Ida B. Wells taught more, and also Marcus Garvey, the early Black nationalist who pushed along the understanding of the African diaspora. I asked historians what’s still being ignored, and the floodgates opened: Black heroism during World War II, and early 19th century Black policymakers, and Black migration to the Midwest decades before the Great Migration.
And Jean Baptiste Point DuSable?
The next possible vote on the renaming of Lake Shore Drive is expected sometime in June. Ephraim Martin calls the last-minute delaying of a vote “a real gangster move — it kind of reminds me of 1920s Chicago.” But he’s firm: “The history of Chicago will be told, and before too long, I’m optimistic that everyone in Chicago will finally know DuSable — it’s their history, too.”