Several hundred friends and relatives of Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste praised and cheered the former Evanston alderman Sunday afternoon as a portion of McDaniel Avenue was given the honorary name of Hon. Lionel Jean-Baptiste Way by the City of Evanston.
The street sign, at McDaniel and Crane, is in the 2nd Ward, which Jean-Baptiste represented on Evanston City Council from 2001-2011.
He has been a Cook County circuit court judge since then.
Ald. Peter Braithwaite, who replaced Jean-Baptiste on the council, said his predecessor “deserves thanks for all the wonderful works” he has done for the City of Evanston.
The street naming ceremony had special meaning for Evanston’s Haitian-American community, many of whom were on hand for the celebration at Harbert-Payne Park.
Jean-Baptiste was born in Haiti and emigrated to Evanston in the early 1960s, when he was 14 years old.
He left as the valedictorian of Evanston Township High School, received a degree from Princeton University and then from Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Iva Carrothers, a social justice activist, told the crowd at Harbert-Payne Park that Jean-Baptiste is “a son of Evanston and Haiti that’s defied the odds.”
Jean-Baptiste became the first Haitian-American alderman/councilmember in Illinois, and then the first Haitian-American judge in Cook County.
It did not take Jean-Baptiste long to become active in the civil rights and social justice movement.
At ETHS, he helped lead student protests to have a Black teacher hired to teach African-American studies.
Once on City Council, he was the first alderman to introduce a measure calling for reparations two decades ago.
Fomer Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th), who helped Evanston pass the nation’s first reparations ordinance in 2019, called Jean-Baptiste “an ambassador of reparations.”
Mayor Daniel Biss said “this community owes this man a lot.”
Jean-Baptiste has also been active in Haitian and Haitian-American causes, as founder of the United Front of the Haitian Diaspora. A representative of the Haitian Consulate in Chicago was one of the speakers at the event.
Following the speeches and music, Jean-Baptiste and the crowd marched arm-in-arm down McDaniel Avenue, reminscent of protests during the Civil Rights era, to the light pole where the honorary street sign was posted.
There was a bit of a glitch, which actually added to the joy of the occasion.
When someone tugged on the rope which was supposed to pull off the brown wrapper covering the sign, the rope came down but the wrapper didn’t budge.
A volunteer then climbed up the pole and pushed the wapper off, to the cheers of the crowd.
Jean-Baptiste then told his friends, family, and admirers that “this is not my sign, this is our sign,” and urged the crowd to keep up the fight so “we don’t leave anybody behind.”