An eight-foot-tall, 2,000 pound bronze cast sculpture was unveiled at the corner of Orrington and Church on Sunday afternoon, honoring the Black Haitian explorer and merchant who is credited with being the first non-indigenous resident of Chicago in the late 18th century.
“Today in Evanston, ” said Etzer Cantav, president of the DuSable Heritage Association, “a giant step has been taken to advance the cause of a Black historical figure.”
Cantav told the more than 100 people assembled for the ceremony that “all of you here in one way or another are the embodiment of [DuSable’s] legacy.”
While some of the dates are not exact due to a lack of record keeping at the time, DuSable is believed to have been born in what is now Haiti in 1745, and settled on the bank of the Chicago River in 1778 or 1779 as a fur trader. He expanded into other businesses, then moved out of Chicago in 1800 and died in 1818.
“He built his [Chicago] home at the exact location of [what is now] the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue,” Cantav said.
The bust itself is a much larger version of another DuSable sculpture, done by the same artist, Erik Blome, in 2009.
That original sculpture was financed by a Haitian-American businessman from Evanston, Lesly Benodin, and is in Chicago.
Chicago’s renaming of Lake Shore Drive as Du Sable Lake Shore drive a couple of years ago was controversial, with critics arguing the road’s old name was iconic. But that controversy has faded.
At Sunday’s Evanston unveiling, artist Blome said there were only old sketches suggesting what DuSable may have looked like.
“Art is an interpretation. This is mine,” said Blome, of the large bust in front of the Evanston Public Library.
The model for the smaller, 2009 sculpture, Blome explained, was someone his wife met at a McDonald’s in California.
“I was looking for a model” who resembled the sketches to serve as DuSable, Blome said, and his wife saw a man named Savalas Williams at the home of the Big Mac.
“He’s willing,” Blome’s wife told him.
So, Williams became the model for DuSable, at Blome’s California studio.
“It’s my Savalas,” Blome joked about both the smaller and now the larger sculptures.
“And I turned him into my DuSable.”
While the original work was financed by Benodin, Blome said he paid for the new sculpture on his own, which was assembled over about three years. Benodin had since passed away.
There was no cost to the City of Evanston for the project, which will be in front of the library for a year before moving to other temporary locations, such as a university in Chicago, and other Illinois cities, according to the sculptor. A final, permanent home is not certain yet.
DuSable was described as an example of multi-culturalism, born to a French father and an enslaved Black Haitian woman, he later married a Native American and became the “de-facto” chief of the local Potawatomi nation as well as a successful entrepreneur.
Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste, an Evanston resident and former member of City Council, joked that with Jean-Baptiste in his own name, perhaps he is somehow related to the founder of Chicago.
The judge is a member of Evanston’s Haitian-American community, and several speakers noted that DuSable is a source of pride for Haitians, who have become “fully integrated into the community and are making a difference.”
Joyy Norris, the city’s Cultural Arts Coordinator, said various locations were considered for placing the bust in Evanston before deciding that in front of the library would be best.
What better place to put it than in front of a building which is dedicated to “exploration and storytelling?”, Norris said.
“The name of the bust is “Explorer.”