History

The Overlooked Legacy of Ida B. Wells

Michelle Duster, Eve Ewing, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Natalie Moore discussed the journalist and civil rights activist’s life and legacy

L-R: Natalie Moore, Eve Ewing, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Michelle Duster (Ben Gonzales, Chicago Humanities Festival)

Last week at the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville, Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of legendary author, journalist, and abolitionist Ida B. Wells, told a packed audience about how four generations of her family have worked to keep her legacy alive. Duster’s grandmother spent years editing Wells’s autobiography, which was first published in 1970. Duster’s parents’ generation established a memorial foundation in Wells’s name for aspiring journalists. Her cousin wrote a play about Wells. And Duster, an author and professor of writing at Columbia College, has edited two books of Wells’ original writing and worked with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and activist Mariame Kaba to raise around $200,000 for a monument to Wells.

“This is about Black history, it’s about American history,” Duster said. “And we can’t let other people erase us.”

Duster and Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine who was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant last year, were part of a panel that also included author and University of Chicago sociology professor Eve Ewing and was moderated by Natalie Moore, an author and WBEZ’s South Side correspondent. The panel, part of the the Chicago Humanities Festival, was held in partnership with The New York Times and the Chicago Urban League.

Wells was born into slavery in 1862 in Mississippi and went on to become a journalist and civil rights campaigner. In 1889, she became a co-owner of The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a Black-owned newspaper in Memphis. Wells extensively documented lynchings in the United States with investigative journalism techniques she pioneered. In 1892, a white mob destroyed the newspaper’s offices in retaliation for its coverage of the lynching of three Black business owners. After threats to her life, Wells moved to Chicago. She lived in a Bronzeville greystone from 1919 until 1929, a period Ewing described as “a time when many of the racial patterns of segregation that we see now were really being cemented” in Chicago.

“It’s almost a form of foreshadowing that this anti-lynching crusader who had so much belief in the role of fighting anti-Black violence came to the city during this seminal time when there was a lot of anti-Black violence,” Ewing said. The violence included a bombing campaign against Black people who tried to move out of Bronzeville, she noted. Between 1917 and 1921, a bomb went off in Chicago every twenty days on average, she said.

Hannah-Jones, who is a cofounder of the Ida B. Wells Society, which aims to increase the number of investigative reporters of color, talked about how influential Wells’ memoir was to her. She discovered it in her college bookstore around the time she was considering a career in journalism.  

“When I read it…there weren’t a lot of templates for what I wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t grow up seeing any examples of Black women investigative reporters. And sadly, I kind of had to go back to the 1800s to even have that. But if you have to go back in time, she was the most amazing one.”

The panelists discussed how Black women are excluded and marginalized from conversations about both racial justice and gender-based justice. Susan B. Anthony and W.E.B. DuBois were among those who attempted to push Wells aside, Ewing said.

“It’s frustrating to think about the fact that one of the reasons why this moment of her legacy bubbling back up has to happen is because she was actually intentionally erased from the narrative by virtue of being a Black woman who insisted on the fullness of both of those identities,” Ewing said. Many of the white women who are heroes of the women’s suffrage movement were explicitly opposed to Black women being part of the conversation, she explained.

“And that echoes so many conversations we hear today, both from Black men and white women,” Ewing said. “Without the understanding that our issues are also race issues, and our issues are also gender issues. So, I think it’s really important for us to uplift her existence at that intersection and to remind ourselves that many of the folks that we idolize also have this complicated history of erasing others, and to make sure as we look around in our contemporary moment that we don’t allow other people to be erased in the same way.” 

Hannah-Jones agreed. “When Black women are advocating, they’re advocating for everyone,” she said. “We are the perfecters of this democracy, and yet we are never getting the credit for that work, and it just goes all the way back, and you still see that now.” 

The conversation then pivoted to Duster’s experience of growing up as Wells’ great-granddaughter. She described her struggle to maintain her own identity independently of her ancestor’s legacy. She also talked about how her parents would drive past the Ida B. Wells Homes, a public housing development that was built in Bronzeville in 1941, and point them out to her. The last buildings in the Homes were torn down in 2011.  

“As I’ve grown, I realized that’s not a small thing to have a community named after your ancestor,” Duster said. But as the Homes became synonymous with problems stemming from neglect, poverty, and institutional racism, the experience changed.

“On the one hand, [Wells’s] name is still being spoken in the city, but at the same time it’s being associated with almost exactly the opposite of what she stood for,” said Duster. “So, when the homes came down, we all had mixed feelings.”

Duster, along with Hannah-Jones and Mariame Kaba, an activist and educator, has spearheaded a campaign that raised over $200,000 to fund a monument to Wells. She explained why the monument is so important in the current moment.

“I think some people in the field are revisiting how [Wells] operated and how she documented facts in a hostile environment, and used those facts to challenge a system,” Duster said. The #MeToo movement and pervasive state-sanctioned violence have also converged to push people to reexamine Wells’ life and work and ask how she stood up to institutions and the powers that be, using journalism as a weapon, she said.  

The monument, one of just a handful depicting women in the city, will be located in a plaza at 37th and Langley, near the middle of where the Homes once stood and a half mile from Wells’s greystone. Famed sculptor and South Sider Richard Hunt, who turned eighty-three last month, is designing it. It will be abstract and interpretive, Duster said, and will also include biographical information and images of Wells.

The conversations around the removal of Confederate monuments helped drive support for the monument, Hannah-Jones said. “There are almost no monuments anywhere in the country to Black people, and certainly not to Black women,” she said. “Who we memorialize says everything about who we think we are and the story of America that we want to tell.”

Princess Ojiaku, a freelance journalist who attended the panel, said she thought it was the perfect group of women to talk about Wells, who she said was “pivotal” to Chicago’s and the nation’s history.

“I thought it was incredibly uplifting, especially as a Black woman from Chicago,” Ojiaku said. “They made the point that she’s been erased, and it’s only taken until now for her to get her due. It’s a period of time now where people are still trying to erase people who are marginalized. So I think it’s inspiring me to stand up and just fight that fight, even if it does seem hopeless, even if it’s something that won’t have an end.”

Editors’ Note: Eve Ewing is a former Weekly contributor.

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Jim Daley is a freelance writer and contributor to the Weekly. He last wrote about the showcase “Environmental Concerns” at the Experimental Station.

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