More than 80 years after she died, legendary African American journalist Ida B. Wells is getting a late birthday present of sorts. One that will bring her new recognition and cement her legacy.
At a time when the country debates its monuments and reckons with who is recognized by history, many see the monument to Wells as a victory.
The campaign was a long grind for Wells’s great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, who helmed the 10-year crowdfunding effort. While Wells’s name is well-known in Chicago, where the journalist lived out half her life after fleeing violence her anti-lynching work elicited in her the South, knowledge of her deeds has faded with time.
“I hope that in Chicago this will help bring her as a woman back into public memory,” Duster said.
In her day, Wells was considered to be one of the most famous African American women in the country, but her name has been largely lost to history, said Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times writer who counts Wells among her heroes and commemorates her by posting on Twitter as Ida Bae Wells. Hannah-Jones spent eight hours on Twitter on Wells’s birthday, helping with a fundraising effort that raked in $40,000 in a single day.
“We don’t learn about black women from that time at all, no matter who they are,” Hannah-Jones said. “She’s important because she was one of the black Americans holding a mirror up to what the country was, but also showing us what this country should be.”
Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Miss. While working as a teacher to support her siblings, Wells put herself through school and became a reporter to “write about black people for black people, in a way that was accessible to those who, like her, were born the property of white owners and had much to defend,” according to a recently published retrospective New York Times obituary.
As a reporter, Wells took on racial injustice and pioneered methods that are still central to modern investigative reporting. She fought against lynching and fought for women’s suffrage and laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. She persisted in her work despite frequent death threats, the ransacking of her Memphis newspaper and searing public criticism and racism.
The monument, which will be sculpted in bronze and granite by artist Richard Hunt, will offer biographical information and quotes from Wells and be located in Bronzeville, a neighborhood that was the core of Chicago’s black community during the Great Migration. Throughout the country, there are hundreds of monuments to the Confederacy; there are fewer than 20 monuments to black women, said Duster, a writer and lecturer at Columbia College in Chicago. She hopes that this will be the start of a movement toward better representation.
“I hope this is the start of African American women being recognized,” Duster said. “We need to tell the story of our country.”