By Bob Seidenberg
An honorary street sign ceremony turned into an all-out pre-July 4th celebration for a prominent member of Evanston’s Haitian community and his considerable achievements July 3.
Community members gathered at Harbert Park, just east of the canal, and celebrated in speech and song Cook County Judge’s Lionel Jean Baptiste’s many contributions to the city — in a more than three-hour ceremony which ended with the unveiling of a street sign, designating a portion of McDaniel Avenue, as the “Honorable Lionel Jean-Baptiste Way.”
Evanston City Council members approved a resolution last December, designating the special naming.
Jean-Baptiste served as Alderman of Evanston’s 2nd Ward for ten years from 2001 until 2011, the first member of the city’s Haitian community to hold the position.
He followed up that distinction, becoming the first Haitian-American to be sworn in as a Cook County judge.
During his time on the Council, he urged aldermen to address the underlying causes of youth violence.
In June of 2002, Jean-Baptiste sponsored a resolution approved by the Evanston City Council, urging Congress to explore reparations to African-Americans for the injustices they suffered during and after slavery.
Evanston was one of a handful of communities, including Chicago, Baltimore and Dallas, as well as the state of California, backing such a proposal.
Jean-Baptiste, who immigrated to this country at age 14, has also been a strong voice on Haitian affairs. He served on Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti, an organization which amended the Haitian Constitution to secure dual citizenship for all people born of Haitian descent throughout the world.
A number of public officials attended the street naming ceremony, including Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who also is Haitian-American and once shared law offices with Jean-Baptiste.
At the ceremony, Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss spoke of Jean-Baptiste’s enduring influence.
“Lionel you have done so much for Evanston,” he said. “We sit in this moment in 2022 proud of our leadership role on the issue of reparations.That is something we would not be doing except for your visionary leadership decades ago.”
Former Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, who would play a leading role two decades later, in the Council’s adoption of the country’s first reparation ordinance, told the crowd that without Jean-Baptiste’s earlier action “we would not have that as a reference to stand on. And that is where our origin story for reparations begins in Evanston and we must always remember because of his audacity, his boldness, his excellence, and his grace, somehow all at the same time.”