“Having lost my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth, I felt I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth.”
—Ida B. Wells
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett—abolitionist, suffragist, journalist and organizer—is a legend. She is the blueprint for black women journalists who write and report on white supremacy, sexual and state violence, and modern-day lynchings carried out by police officers across the country.
She gave us permission to be both rigorous and righteous. And whenever I find myself in a position to push back against those in mainstream media who criticize “advocacy journalism,” I always say her name, because she taught us that if we’re going to be objective, then we must begin at the beginning. We must contextualize facts—specifically ones that misrepresent, disparage and vilify black people—by reporting the pre- and co-existing facts that influence our realities.
Put simply: Wells is the truth, the light and the way, which is why organizer Mariame Kaba has joined forces with Michelle Duster, Wells’ great-granddaughter, and community members to raise funds for a monument honoring her life and her work.
The committee has selected renowned Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt (who already has several public artworks around the city) to create an abstract monumental sculpture that will incorporate Wells’s image at different ages, her writing, and information about her life. ... The proposed site in Bronzeville sits at the heart of what was once the Ida B. Wells public housing development—the first public housing constructed for African-American families in the city.
“Ida B. Wells has long been a touchstone for me. As a writer, activist and organizer, she was a trailblazer who taught us how to fight and to win,” Kaba told The Root.
“She was the catalyst for an international anti-lynching movement and a pioneering criminal-justice reformer,” Kaba continued. “Chicago absolutely needs a monument that uplifts and preserves her legacy. That’s why this monument project is so important.”
In an exclusive interview with The Root, Duster shared that it has been more difficult than expected to reach their $300,000 goal for expenses related to the project.
“It’s a pretty modest project and budget compared to other monuments across the country,” Duster said. “I thought it would be easy, considering the impact and influence her work has had on generations, but that has not been the case.”
Wells spent her life in service to her community. With unwavering discipline and determination, she pushed back against prevailing narratives surrounding black criminality, and she did so unapologetically and relentlessly.
“Really, what she was doing was providing a counternarrative to mainstream media,” Duster told The Root. “She knew that the narrative being told, predominantly about black American men, though there certainly were some black women who were lynched, was that there had been some sexual violation of white women, when the real reasons ranged from the mundane to economic oppression.
“Black men were being portrayed as these brutish, violent predators that white women had to be protected from, and it was really wholesale terrorism that was going on against the black community. It wasn’t about crime, or punishment for crimes,” Duster continued. “It was mob rule used to keep black people afraid to step outside of certain boundaries erected around them as it pertained to any kind of economic entrepreneurship or political rights, or really any way that black people tried to push out of this restrictive existence.
“My great-grandmother unearthed and unveiled the reality, which is that lynching was used as a tool to subjugate black people,” Duster said.
Black women are often recognized for their labor and contributions to the world, but what about Ida B. Wells the woman, the mother and the grandmother? Who was she to the people who loved her most?
“I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who was Ida’s youngest daughter, and her sister, who was Ida Jr., and they really didn’t talk about their mother a whole lot,” Duster told The Root. “Based on the silence, the impression that I got was that it wasn’t easy being her child.
“She had a low tolerance for b.s. and she had high expectations for her children,” Duster continued. “She was always working and she was doing work that was dangerous, so that made it dangerous for her children. There were a lot of death threats and verbal attacks because a lot of people did not like her. A lot of it was sexism, because how dare a woman do this type of work, right? And then, outside of that, her outspokenness and what people believed to be her militance made her a target.
“She was a tough person,” Duster added, “but she had to be to do the work that she was doing. She loved her people that much.”
On Wednesday, Chicago alderman Brendan Reilly and alderwoman Sophia King moved to rename Balbo Drive, named in honor of Italian aviator and fascist Italo Balbo, after Wells. The ordinance is supported by “more than 30 Chicago civic organizations as well as fellow aldermen including Michael Scott Jr., Pat Dowell, Deborah Mell, Edward Burke, Michele Smith, Emma Mitts, and Milly Santiago,” Chicago Curbed reported.
If the ordinance passes, it would be the first official street-name change in Chicago since 1968, when the city renamed South Park Way for Martin Luther King Jr.
“I believe Mrs. Wells’ legacy speaks for itself,” Sophia King said.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel would not publicly support the name change, instead saying that he understood “the spirit and energy” behind the ordinance, and he is willing to “have that discussion,” the Chicago Tribune reports.
Despite Emanuel’s hesitancy regarding the name change, Wells’ legacy cannot be denied, and with the campaign to raise funds for the monument still $60,000 away from reaching its goal, Duster continues to move forward.
“This monument is important because I want people to know that when you’re passionate about something, you can make an impact. There is still a need for the kind of journalism that my great-grandmother dedicated her life to. There is still a need to disrupt mainstream narratives about the black community.”
Click the link below to donate to the Ida B. Wells monument fund.