The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘You can’t just gloss over this history’: The movement to honor Ida B. Wells gains momentum

CHICAGO — Across the top, the grave marker at Oak Woods Cemetery reads BARNETT. Along the bottom, “Crusaders for Justice.” On the left, there is her name: Ida B. Wells, beside her husband’s.

This stone is the rare marker in Chicago that honors Wells, a hero in an unending battle against racial injustice who died in 1931. Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Miss., Wells became a crusading African American journalist who exposed the crime and shame of lynching and fought for women’s suffrage.

After a white mob reacted to one of her anti-lynching editorials by destroying the presses of her Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech, she carried the struggle to Chicago in the early 1890s and lived half of her life here.

Yet her pioneering work is all but unrecognized in the city, which has no shortage of statues and monuments to leading white men.

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. 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.”

The push to honor Wells — the Chicago City Council is considering renaming Balbo Drive for her — has an echo in other cities as monuments to Confederate soldiers and leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis come down.

Pittsburgh is holding a contest to select an African American woman to honor after removing a monument to songwriter Stephen Foster that featured a barefoot black banjo player at his knee.

Charlottesville’s city council is conducting a poll to rename two parks for a second time. Last year, the council renamed Jackson Park as Justice Park and Lee Park as Emancipation Park but decided to choose again. One finalist is Swanson Legacy Park, in honor of Gregory H. Swanson, the first African American admitted to the University of Virginia.

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“It is in some ways just as hard to put up new monuments as it is to take down old monuments,” said Tim Huebner, a history professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, where he helped install a more complete historical marker about Nathan Bedford Forrest, a notorious slave trader remembered with a 1955 plaque that said only that “his business enterprises made him wealthy.”

A new plaque, unveiled in April and sponsored by the Calvary Episcopal Church, Rhodes College and the National Park Service, is 462 words long. It reports that Forrest “operated a profitable slave trading business at this site” in violation of Tennessee law, and quotes Horatio Eden, who recalled being sold there as a child: “The buyers would stand nearby and inspect us. Stop us. And examine us.”

From teacher to activist

While the construction of monuments once was typically the province of elites — almost by definition white elites — grass-roots efforts are now more prominent, said Kirk Savage, an art historian at the University of Pittsburgh who studies public memorials.

“Municipalities are trying to engage much more with these publics, particularly African Americans and other publics that haven’t had a voice in the public sphere,” said Savage, author of “Monument Wars,” which focuses on Washington, D.C. “How that’s going to shake out is a little bit hard to know.”

The effort to honor Wells fits the moment, Savage said. “That’s one thing positive that these new monuments can do: People who may know nothing about Ida B. Wells will find things about this extraordinary woman they didn’t know anything about.”

Wells was born in 1862, 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, where 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.

The only major Chicago effort to recognize Wells came in 1941 with the opening of a housing project for African Americans that would grow 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.

“Unfortunately, I associate her with the negativity of the housing development,” said Tony Rogers, co-chair of the committee to build the memorial. “We have to turn that around.”

'It should not be this hard'

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.

Then there is the nascent monument.

“Since my mid-20s, I’ve been obsessed with her,” said New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, who flew to Chicago last month to help raise money for the Wells monument. 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.

Wells “challenged every type of convention,” including sexism in the civil rights community and racism in the women’s suffrage movement, Hannah-Jones said. “She refused to stay in her place at a time when doing something could be debilitating, could be dangerous.”

And yet the effort to build a monument in Chicago has not gone quickly.

“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.”