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Evanston City Council members approved on Dec. 13 an honorary street name for Cook County Circuit Court Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste, recognizing his contributions as the City’s first Haitian-American alderman, as well as the early light he shined on the issue of reparations.
City Council members voted 6-0 in support of designating a portion of McDaniel Avenue between Crain Street and Dempster Street as “Honorable Lionel Jean-Baptiste Way.”
Jean-Baptiste served as alderman of Evanston’s 2nd Ward for 10 years, from 2001 to 2011. He left his seat to fill an open judge position in the Cook County Circuit Court.
Gabrielle Jean-Paul Walker, a cousin of Jean-Baptiste’s, submitted the application to the city. Peter Braithwaite, a close supporter of Jean-Baptiste’s who was appointed to fill his position in 2011, submitted the nomination to the city.
In discussion, Braithwaite said, “the Judge … had served the Evanston community long before he joined the City Council. When I first met him, he was very involved with the NAACP, very involved with educating our youth, particularly our Black and Brown youth, as well as our seniors,” he said at the Dec. 13 meeting. Moreover, “when he was on the Council, he laid the foundation for reparations,” Braithwaite said.
“Not only do you serve as a leader for us,” he said, directly addressing Jean-Baptiste, “but you serve as a Black leader here in our town for those of us who come behind you, as well any other of us who stand behind this dais.”
Jean-Baptiste was born in 1949 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and emigrated to the United States at 14. As the oldest of six siblings and the only boy, he was a strong influence on the rest of the family, said one sister, Lucie Lauture Sims, speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting. “Not only was he the protective older brother as we grew up, but he was also our mentor and teacher,” she said. “In order to raise six children, our parents worked multiple jobs in pursuit of a better life for us. And that was their central focus. Lionel actually was the critical piece of the puzzle.”
Further, she said, “by excelling academically, playing sports – to being class president and even organizing student protests at Evanston Township [High School] in the late ’60s, he was unknowingly teaching and inspiring his sisters, cousins, friends and classmates.” After graduation from ETHS in 1970, Jean-Baptiste attended Princeton University. He eventually returned to his adopted hometown and enrolled in law school in 1986, graduating from the Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1990.
As a lawyer he worked on special cases such as the major African American reparations case against 17 U.S. corporations in federal court, Walker’s application noted. In 2001 when he joined the Evanston City Council, he became the first Haitian-American elected in the state of Illinois to that type of municipal position. He won two other terms of office, including an election where he was forced to wage a write-in campaign after a ballot challenge.
In March of 2011, he became the first Haitian-American to be sworn in as a Cook County Circuit judge. Beyond his career, “Jean-Baptiste has always maintained his activism,” the application continued. His service in support of Haiti included “a seven-year international campaign to amend the Haitian Constitution to secure dual citizenship for all Haitians born, anywhere in the world, to a Haitian mother or a Haitian father,” she noted.
Council support, old and new
Those speaking in support of the honor included Council members past and present. Third Ward Council member Melissa Wynne, currently the senior member of the council, served with Jean-Baptiste for nearly 10 years.
It was Alderman Jean-Baptiste (the terms “Council member” and “alderperson” were not then in use) “who kept pushing this council and pushing our city staff about ‘What about the kids who fall through the cracks. What are we doing for them?’” she recalled.
Wynne said Jean-Baptiste was also the spirit behind the creation of a city Youth and Adult Commission designed to give young people a greater voice. Speaking on a video hookup, retired 5th Ward Alderperson Delores Holmes said she came to know Jean-Baptiste during the 1980s while working with members of the Haitian committee as director of Family Focus, a social service agency at 2010 Dewey Ave.
Later when she was elected to serve on the Council with him, she said, “he took me under his wings and really mentored me and helped me to navigate. It’s not an easy job setting up [as a new Council member] there, and there’s so much to learn. And he was just so kind and generous to me.”
Robin Rue Simmons, recently retired as 5th Ward Council member and credited for playing a leading role in the City’s adoption of the nation’s first housing reparations program, spoke of Jean-Baptiste’s commitment in that area “and what he’s done to get the city headed in that direction.” Several of the Council’s Black members also spoke of Jean-Baptiste’s influence.
An early role model
“I grew up on Emerson [Street] right down the street from your old law office,” recalled 8th Ward Council member Devon Reid, elected to a first term in April, “and I distinctly remember my grandmother coming home and saying she had met with this lawyer down the street who’s also the alderman, and I just thought that was the coolest thing.”
Current 5th Ward Council member Bobby Burns spoke about the skills he hoped to bring as a new Council member and recalled a conversation he had with former Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl. “She said, ‘There’s one person I’ve seen that was the most effective negotiator,’ and your name came up,” he told Jean-Baptiste.
Mayor Daniel Biss turned to Jean-Baptiste to administer the oath of office when the new Council took office in May. “I did that for a number of reasons,” he said, also addressing Jean-Baptiste. “Number one, here’s someone I have an enormous amount of respect for, someone I’ve watched how you handle yourself, the kind of responsibility you put on your shoulders, the responsibility for our youth and for our community. That’s something I’ve always admired tremendously.” He said Jean-Baptiste’s early work on reparations also stood out.
“I think your name needs to be part of that history, part of that story,” he said.
Reparations – 2002
In June of 2002, Jean-Baptiste sponsored a resolution, which the Evanston City Council approved, urging Congress to explore reparations to African Americans for the injustices they suffered during and after slavery. Jean-Baptiste said at the time that the idea had been proposed by a resident who said she had received little interest initially when she raised the issue. Evanston was one of a handful of communities, including Chicago, Baltimore and Dallas, as well as the state of California, backing such a proposal. Bennett Johnson, then president of the local branch of the NAACP and still active today, was among those who spoke then in support of the resolution.
Among those commending Jean-Baptiste were Rep. Jan Schakowsky, co-sponsor of the bill introduced by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, that would establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery and subsequent discrimination against African Americans.
At the Dec. 13 Council meeting, Jean-Baptiste thanked Council members for the honorary street naming, calling it “a great night.” “I grew up with five sisters, and they all were fierce and everybody loved one another,” he told Council members.
“You know our parents were folks of meager means but high expectations,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I often say that my mother couldn’t afford to buy tokens to the beach, but she found a way from her factory job – father working, mopping floors – to pay for all their children to go to St. Mary’s, private schools…So you know priorities are what’s important,” he said. “We have to stay consistent, we have to stand the barricades, because if we don’t do it then no one is doing it for us.”