There’s a movement afoot to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Forrest was a Confederate general. More notoriously, he was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Numerous streets and public monuments in the South were once named for N. B. Forrest. (For that matter, so was Forrest Gump.) Many of those names have been revised in recent years—in Atlanta, Forrest Avenue is now called Ralph McGill Boulevard, after a newsman who fought segregation. This type of change I applaud.
But I don’t agree with historical revision just for the sake of convenience. Unless a person is a scoundrel like General Forrest, leave his/her name on that street or park or school. If a more recent person deserves such an honor, don’t dishonor someone else in the process.
I’ve already written about this once— http://www.wbez.org/blogs/john-r-schmidt/2012-11/mark-white-square-and-mcguane-park-104103 Today the subject is Levin Park, a little pocket-park at Kinzie and Long on the West Side.
In 1866 the Town of Austin was being laid out. This particular area, where the Lake Street trail crossed the Chicago & North Western railroad tracks, was known as Merrick’s Subdivision. Railroad executive C.C. Merrick was a friend of local developer Henry W. Austin.
A line of cottonwood trees was a familiar landmark for travelers along Lake Street. A seven-acre parcel of land just east of the trees was left vacant as a firebreak. Residents began calling the lot Merrick Park.
The name remained in place after the City of Chicago annexed Austin. Over the years the park district improved the facility.
Meanwhile, in 1905, 18-year-old John H. Levin opened a restaurant at 3175 West Madison Street. Known as Little Jack’s, it expanded over the years to include three dining rooms, serving nearly a million meals each year. The place became a popular hangout for West Side politicians.
Little Jack’s closed in 1962. The property later became the site of another West Side institution, Edna’s Soul Food Restaurant.
Little Jack Levin himself was appointed to the Park District Board in 1947. He retired from the board in 1969, and died two years later.
In 1974 the park district dumped long-forgotten C.C. Merrick in favor of John H. Levin. The new signs at the park read: “John H. Levin Park—‘Little Jack.'” I taught a few blocks away at Howe School for many years, and the kids used to say they were going over to Little Jack.
However, the last time I was in the neighborhood, I noticed that the current park signs simply read “Levin Park.” So now the City Powers have not only disposed of C.C. Merrick, they’ve homogenized Little Jack Levin. Where will it end—numbers on the parks instead of names?
I’ll be seeing you at Airstrip One.