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Washington Park’s 125 Anniversary Marked

A month-long celebration marking the 125th anniversary of the naming of Washington Park will highlight the park’s “rich and vibrant” social and cultural history, said Elizabeth Babcock of the University of Chicago’s Civic Knowledge Project.

A community celebration on Sunday, May 7, 3 p.m., in the park’s refectory (5531 S. Russell Drive) will feature a buffet dinner and a talk by local historian Christopher Reed, professor emeritus at Roosevelt University. Presentations will be given by community groups which use the park — including the Washington Park Forum, an open discussion group which has met continuously since its origin in the 1920s, when Washington Park was a gathering place for soapboxers.

Historical photos and archival material gathered by students with the Civic Knowledge Project will be displayed, and residents are encouraged to bring their own photos to be digitized during dinner, with complementary “Treasures of Washington Park” CDs available at the conclusion of the program.

On Saturday, May 13, at 8 a.m., UC Professor Aaron Turkewitz will lead an introduction to bird-watching starting at the park’s field house.

On Saturday, May 20, at 1 p.m., Washington Park Advisory Council President Cecilia Butler and two UC graduate students will lead a walking tour of the park, covering the park’s design and development and how race and class issues have played out there. Starting at the field house, the tour concludes at the historic site of the Washington Park Forum, with a public debate by current members of the forum and local school debaters.

On Saturday, May 27, at 10 a.m., Loyola historican and archivist Ellen Skerrett and St. Ignatius College Prep teacher John Lillig will lead a tour of prominent sites from James Farrell’s novels.

On Tuesday, June 6, the advisory council will host Washington Park Discovery Day for children from neighboring schools, with displays by the city’s cultural institutions and recreational agencies.

Washington Park was initially designed in the 1870s by seminal landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux. The park’s central green was a pastoral meadow featuring grazing sheep; today it’s the largest ballplaying field in Chicago, named in honor of Harold Washington, said Butler.

Racial issues played out in Washington Park during the post-World War I Great Migration, said Babcock. Pioneer black banker Jesse Binga was the first African American to live on South Park Drive, and his home was firebombed repeatedly; by the 1930s, the entire neighborhood was African American, said Babcock.

The Bud Billiken Day Parade, founded by the Chicago Daily Defender in 1929, was part of an effort by African Americans to claim their right to use the park, where they were initially unwelcome, Babcock said.

The Park District rebuffed the advisory council’s efforts after Mayor Washington’s death to renamed the park for him, Butler said. But she adds, “When you say ‘Washington’ today, very few people who live around here think ‘George.’”

Butler enumerates the park’s “treasures” — Lorenzo Taft’s massive sculpture “Fountain of Time” (recently restored, with the restoration of its wading pool imminent); the DuSable Museum; the city’s only water slide; the city’s only arboretum, and its oldest tree. The council’s goals include a permanent bandshell for the many large cultural events that now use portable stages.

The May 7 buffet dinner (tickets are $25, donations at the door accepted) will benefit a new disabled-accessible playground at the park.

Butler has served on the council since its inception in 1986 — and she points out that 2006 is also the 20th anniversary of the Chicago Park District’s advisory councils, instituted by Mayor Harold Washington.

The Civic Knowledge Project is sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Humanities Division and seeks to build bridges of knowledge and discourse between the University and South Side communities.

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