When Lionel Jean-Baptiste and his family members tried to tug the string attached to the brown paper wrapping concealing the judge’s new honorary street sign, the string snapped before it could yank off the covering and reveal the sign.
Before audience members had time to worry, a man jumped up onto the lamppost, shimmied his way to the top, reached toward the street sign and pulled off the wrapping, leading the crowd at McDaniel Avenue and Crain Street to break into applause in front of the newly named Honorable Lionel Jean-Baptiste Way.
On Sunday, July 3, starting at 3 p.m., about 400 people gathered at the corner and then walked to Harbert Payne Park in the Canal Park neighborhood of Evanston for a four-hour celebration. The honoree Cook County Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste walked with them and greeted well-wishers.
This is the neighborhood where Jean-Baptiste grew up, raised his family, which he represented in City Council for a decade and where he still lives.
So many things to honor
The street-naming was meant to honor Jean-Baptiste for so many things, including being the first Haitian American on the Cook County Circuit Court bench. But also for all of the many things he has done for Evanston and particularly his leadership in the Black community.
A graduate of Evanston Township High School, Jean-Baptiste was a leader in sports and academics but was advocating for change through protest until he left for Princeton University. He received his law degree from the Chicago-Kent College of Law. His law work, before being elected to the bench, included a major case against 17 corporations for reparations.
Robin Rue Simmons, former Council member credited with playing a leading role in the city’s adoption of the nation’s first housing reparations program, says Jean-Baptiste helped lay the groundwork for her work.
He has also supported the next generations with his work, whether through individual mentoring or the many more formal youth and mentoring programs he helped set up.
He also has worked for the Haitian community included helping wage 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.
Ceremony and friends
Jean-Baptiste’s cousin, Gabrielle Jean-Paul Walker, submitted the street renaming application to the city, which was presented by outgoing Council member Peter Braithwaite and approved by the City Council in December 2021.
Since then Jean-Baptiste’s wife, Lenore, and his three children, Ayinde, Ayesha and Lionel Anthony, prepared the community celebration and planned the programming.
Ayinde said the moment when the string broke was one of the highlights of the day because it showed the inspiration that leaders like his father generate in people.
“If that dude didn’t climb, somebody was gonna climb up that pole. It was like three or four [guys] who was getting themselves ready to do that. Because, like [Lionel Jean-Baptiste] has made that kind of space in the world.”
More than a dozen speakers praised the judge’s life and career, including city leaders, Jean-Baptiste’s relatives and state and national leaders. Those who came to pay tribute included U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, the Haitian Consulate and Mayor Daniel Biss.
Haitian flags hung everywhere and officials from the local NAACP chapter as well as the national United Front of the Haitian Diaspora presented Jean-Baptiste with awards.
But the event was also packed with people who Lionel Jean-Baptiste had helped during his long career in Evanston. Ayinde said some of these comrades and extended Haitian community members were people whom the judge had mentored and “given a good word to that sometimes changed the trajectory of their lives.”
Many members of the Jean-Baptiste family sang or presented a song. Azania Drum, a West African drum corps, also performed. Ayesha and Ayinde performed a spoken word piece to kick-off the event, and later, Lionel Anthony played his trumpet.
“I’m glad he’s getting his flowers, and getting flowers before something happens. He really does deserve it,” said Katherine Sexton, who spoke at Sunday’s event. “He’s very pro-Evanston and pro-Canal Park, so it was great having him as a neighbor.”
Sexton lives across the street from the judge. She recalled seeing Jean-Baptiste when she was growing up and met him again at a neighborhood meeting six months after moving into the neighborhood. He’s been in the association since it started in the early 1980s.
“He has his hands in a lot of pots. So he’s around a lot of different people,” Sexton said. “And that’s why you have such an eclectic turnout, which is a wonderful thing.”
After the ceremony ended, the celebration continued at Jean-Baptiste’s home at full volume with their front and backyard packed with friends and family.
“It’s really important to me that we look at what it means to belong to a place,” Ayinde told the RoundTable, reflecting on his family name on the street sign, a physical marker of the long impact the Jean-Baptiste family has made on the city. “And what it means to humbly receive the honor of having our name written into the history of a place, [in a manner] that is different from a colonial lineage.”