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Chicago aldermen pitch plan to rename Balbo Drive after civil rights crusader Ida B. Wells

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The downtown street will lose its current name honoring a fascist-era marshal in Mussolini’s Italian air force

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It was a proposal to rename Balbo Drive after prominent civil rights activist and anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells—not the Obama Presidential Center—that stirred up the most controversy at Wednesday’s Chicago City Council meeting.

The ordinance, jointly introduced by 4th Ward Alderman Sophia King and 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly, would see the east-west roadway running from Lake Shore Drive to State Street between Harrison and 8th streets no longer honor Italian aviator Italo Balbo.

A fascist organizer and marshal in dictator Benito Mussolini’s air force, Balbo led a squadron of twenty-four seaplanes on a transatlantic flight from Rome to Chicago for the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. The city renamed 7th Street and staged a parade in honor of Balbo’s voyage.

It didn’t take long—namely to the onset of World War II—for Chicagoans to start debating Balbo’s place on the city’s street grid. The decades-old conversation took on a renewed urgency last year after the removal of Confederate Civil War monuments erupted in violent protests in places like Charlottesville, Virginia.

A portrait of Ida B. Wells circa 1920.
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Aldermen King and Reilly hope to bring their newly introduced ordinance to a committee vote in June followed by a full vote from the City Council. If adopted, the measure would represent the first official street name change in Chicago since South Park Way was renamed to memorialize Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

The recent push to honor local African-American journalist, educator, and women’s suffrage movement leader Ida B. Wells has the support of more than 30 Chicago civic organizations as well as fellow aldermen including Michael Scott Jr., Pat Dowell, Deborah Mell, Edward Burke, Michele Smith, Emma Mitts, and Milly Santiago.

As with previous efforts to drop the Balbo name from Chicago’s old 7th Street, the latest plan has met resistance from some Italian-American civic and historical groups. Earlier discussions had explored the option of swapping Balbo’s name for another Italian-American such as noted University of Chicago physicist Enrico Fermi.

A cloud of uncertainty also surrounds Chicago’s monument to Balbo, a prewar gift from Mussolini set in Burnham Park near Soldier Field. It consists of a 2,000-year-old Roman pillar mounted atop a 20th century stone base. Some activists have lobbied for the monument’s removal while others have suggested adding a plaque to historically contextualize its pro-fascist inscription.

A jogger passes Chicago’s Balbo Monument.
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