Former J’can newspaper messenger winning battle to honour black founder of Chicago

In three weeks from today, all Jamaican Ephraim Martin will need is half of the Chicago City Council to vote in his favour to rename an iconic street in the Windy City after a black Haitian man, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, its understated founder.

It would be a historic victory for Martin, his campaign team calling themselves Black Heroes Matter (BHM) and a slew of prominent Chicago personalities, mostly black, with strong public backing, if 26 of 50 city council members said ‘aye’ to the proposal.

Last week, after a year of intense campaigning by the BHM coalition of 80 organisations, the Chicago City Council’s Transportation and Public Way Committee unanimously approved their controversial petition, sponsored, significantly, by Alderman David Moore, a member of the city council.

The petition also calls for a monument and a holiday to honour DuSable who is said to have been a multi-lingual fur trader, flourishing in the grain industry 240 years ago and settled on 800 acres of land near the Chicago River. But he is little known as the founder of Chicago, a fact not taught in schools.

“This black man must be recognised for what he did. He established this the third largest city in America. It is a victory long overdue,” Martin, who emigrated to Chicago 19 years ago, was quoted by Caribbean Life as saying.

“It’s only a first step and a partial victory but we know it’s the leap of faith that we know will ensure total victory for the city of Chicago. I am confident that when the full council membership of 50 votes on May 26, the quest for victory will be complete.”

Martin, who is admired for beating the odds, left Kingston for Chicago in 1982, after starting out as a messenger in the editorial department of The Gleaner newspaper. He bought a second-hand camera and soon became a top freelance photographer for the newspaper.

Shortly after migrating to Chicago, Illinois, the St Thomas native founded the Chicago Music Awards, believing that Jamaica’s reggae was severely under-promoted internationally and could be a voice for the voiceless peoples of the world.

Under his Martin’s International company, he launched the International Reggae Music Awards soon after, later expanding it to the International Reggae and World Music Awards, with emphasis on Caribbean and African music genres.

He has also hosted July 4th and Labour Day cultural festivals in Chicago, and championed popular political causes, including an end to South African apartheid; the work of Jamaican National Hero Marcus Garvey; civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr and late South African hero Nelson Mandela. He campaigned hard for the election of the first black US President Barack Obama.

Martin’s confidence aside, getting the name change is far from being a done deal. Lake Shore Drive is on the so-called gold coast, near the Magnificent Mile where billionaires and multimillionaires live and shop. And they are strongly opposed.

“The big money donors, Fox TV heads, Chicago Tribune, Hilton Hotel, and others of the one per cent minority are pressing the mayor not to allow the change, as in their minds DuSable is not a marketable name and will turn away tourists,” Martin told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.

He said that in the BHM’s first meeting with Mayor Lori Lightfoot last December, she didn’t know that Chicago was founded by a black man. “She was in favour of all our three requests for the street, the monument and the holiday; however, she wanted us to compromise on some of our demands”.

“Following the committee vote on Thursday, she told the media that she now had her own compromise plan for DuSable which is far bigger than our plan, should we back off the Lake Shore Drive proposal, which we have rejected.

“She said she is now looking at putting US$20 million to develop a DuSable river walk, three monuments and more… But as our ordinance sponsor, Alderman David Moore told her, that would be a great supplement in addition to DuSable Drive but not to replace,” said Martin.

“It is very iconic and she doesn’t want it to change. But we believe that this change — naming it after the black founder of this great city, DuSable —after 240 years, will attract more visitors to Chicago. When our objectives are accomplished, Chicago can say it is on the road to end systemic racism,” Martin told the Observer.

Lightfoot, a lawyer, became known as the first openly lesbian African American woman and only the second woman to be mayor of Chicago.

BHM contends that 94 years ago, there was a chance to give DuSable the street then known as Field Boulevard, but “the practice of racism stood its ground, and the streets were all named after white men— Washington, Jefferson, and John Kinzie, who purchased DuSable’s properties, while the boulevard was named in the honour of Leif Ericson, an explorer”.

“In 1946, Leif Ericson Drive was renamed Lake Shore Drive; now 74 years later a small minority are making the excuse to say LSD is too iconic to be renamed in Chicago’s rightful founder DuSable’s name,” the group said.

In the presentation to the council, the group insisted: “They will know that over 240 years ago in 1779, this land we enjoy as Chicago was started by a black man from the Caribbean country of Haiti, by the name of DuSable but because of the colour of his skin he was denied his respect and credit, such as a street, a monument, and a city holiday.

“Tomorrow’s children will know, that in about 1919, activists were calling for full recognition for DuSable.”

The BHM coalition founded by Martin began its relentless pursuit to “correct misrepresented history” a year ago, in the wake of the massive protests of the police killing of George Floyd, a black man by a white cop now convicted of his murder.

They established the web portal www.blackheroesmatter.org and a fund-raising mechanism to advance the campaign and have been meeting with city officials to implore the mayor to commit to dedicating a holiday to DuSable, erecting a monument and renaming the drive.

“We would not let a week go by without addressing the various City Council committees asking for justice for DuSable’s and for an end to systemic racism that led us to this moment.

“We demand a main street not a by-way, so that when tourists and others drive along this main street they will know the name DuSable and the role he played in making this city what it is. We are committed to making this a reality,” Martin said. “We are not going to stop.”

“People must know the history of Chicago; people should know the true history, people should know that Black Heroes Matter,” he declared.

The campaign believed that it is within sight of victory, after the unanimous April 29, 2021 vote for the proposal backed by Alderman Moore and Alderwoman Sophia King and the decision to take it before the full council for the final vote on May 26. 

— Compiled by Desmond Allen and Kevin Wainwright

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