Ida B. Wells, a crusading African American journalist who exposed the crime and shame of lynching and fought for women’s suffrage, spent half her life in Chicago.
She died in 1931 after dedicating her life to the battle against racial injustice.
Yet her pioneering work is all but unrecognized in Chicago, which has no shortage of statues and monuments to leading white men.
There is the grave marker at Oak Woods Cemetery. It reads BARNETT. Along the bottom, “Crusaders for Justice.” On the left, there is her name: Ida B. Wells, beside her husband’s.
Then, there was a housing project, erected in 1941 and called Ida B. Wells Homes. It grew to 1,662 units, but it did not end well. The project succumbed to neglect and dysfunction before the last building was torn down in 2011, doing no honor to her name.
Michelle Duster, her great-granddaughter, aims to change that. For the past decade, Duster and a few friends have labored, dollar by dollar, to raise $300,000 to build a monument to Wells in Chicago. They’re still barely halfway there, but the word is getting out.
“You can’t just gloss over this history,” said Duster, a writer and lecturer who sees a need for Wells’s example these days. “She not only believed in certain principles and values but she sacrificed herself over and over and over again. She was called fearless. I don’t believe that she had no fear. I believe she had fear and she decided to keep going forward.”
A monument will honor the legendary activist, as well as introduce her to people who aren’t familiar with her place in American history.
“People who may know nothing about Ida B. Wells will find things about this extraordinary woman they didn’t know anything about,” said Kirk Savage, an art historian at the University of Pittsburgh who studies public memorials.
In 1862, Wells was born in Holly Springs, Miss., a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation. She passed a teacher’s exam at age 16 and taught school. In 1884, after she moved to Memphis, three railroad workers forcibly removed her from a train for refusing to leave a car reserved for white women, even though she had purchased a ticket. She sued and won, only to see the verdict overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Wells began writing newspaper columns and purchased a share of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. When three of her black friends were lynched after opening a grocery store in competition with a white-owned business, she started investigating and challenged the assertion that large numbers of black men were raping white women.
The city of Memphis, she wrote, does not protect an African American “who dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival.” After a mob destroyed the printing presses, she moved for good to Chicago in the early 1890s. There, she married lawyer Ferdinand Barnett, had four children, worked as a probation officer and supported migrants from the South, all the while traveling widely to oppose racial terror.
Wells “challenged every type of convention,” including sexism in the civil rights community and racism in the women’s suffrage movement, New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones said. “She refused to stay in her place at a time when doing something could be debilitating, could be dangerous.”
Hannah-Jones, whose 75,000 Twitter followers see her handle as Ida Bae Wells, also worked to create the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Journalism, designed to increase and elevate investigative work by people of color.
Last month, Hannah-Jones flew to Chicago to help raise money for the Wells monument, which has been a slow moving project.
Wells is enjoying fresh attention, with the New York Times publishing her obituary for the first time this year, 87 years after she died, and the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., honoring her with a selection of quotes, an area for quiet reflection and a stone inscribed with her name.
A progressive group in Chicago, led by Delmarie Cobb, formed the Ida B. Wells Legacy Committee, a political fund to advance the candidacies of African American women. Hillary Clinton spoke at a fundraiser for the organization in April.
But it has taken decades to gain this momentum, and remains a challenge to garner support for Wells’s monument.
“There are so many bigger projects that have been funded over a shorter period of time. It’s not that much money,” lamented Duster, who is editor of an anthology to be released this year titled “Michelle Obama’s Impact on African American Women and Girls.” She recently tweeted, “It’s #Idastime, but it should not be this hard.”
The Democratic-led Illinois legislature has not stepped in, despite a letter-writing campaign, nor has the city, although three city council members announced an effort last month to rename Balbo Drive in Wells’s honor. Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) “very much supports honoring Ida B. Wells’s legacy,” his spokesman, Adam Collins, said in an email, “and we will work collaboratively to find the best way to do so.”
Chicago has very few monuments to women, said Theodore Karamanski, a specialist in public history at Loyola University of Chicago. “That’s why the movement to have her represented is long overdue. ”
The Wells committee has chosen a prominent sculptor, Richard Hunt, and a location in Bronzeville, the heart of Chicago’s black community during the Great Migration. If the permitting goes as planned, Duster said, the impressionistic bronze-and-granite monument will be erected next year in the median strip on South Langley Avenue at 37th Street. The spot is a half-mile from her spacious, Romanesque Revival home at 3624 S. Martin Luther King Dr., which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
Wells’s choices and her example are relevant today, Duster said, when “our stories, our realities are very skewed toward the negative. Living my life as a black woman in this country, the perceptions people have are not based on reality. They’re based on propaganda. . . .
“In my own way, I’m trying to add to the positive stories.”