In 1898, Black journalist and organizer Ida B. Wells-Barnett went to the White House to petition President William McKinley for federal action on the scourge of lynching. More than 120 years later, President Biden last week signed the Emmitt Till Antilynching Act into law, officially making lynching a hate crime in America. Afterward, I spoke with Michelle Duster, a Chicago-based historian and professor — as well as the great-granddaughter of Wells-Barnett — about the long arc of this history. Our conversation has been abridged and edited for clarity.
Karen Attiah: Let’s talk about your moment at the White House. I watched your speech saying this was basically 124 years in the making. You have been documenting your great-grandmother’s history through monuments and other works. But now this is actual federal protection for Black people that your great-grandmother was calling for. You seemed so calm and composed! How did you do it?
Michelle Duster: You know what, I honestly was terrified that I would trip! [laughter] … I had this nightmare like, what if you slip? You’ll become this Internet meme forever.
Attiah: I fear our great-great-grandchildren will see bad memes of us and our ill-thought-out tweets.
Duster: But outside of not tripping, I was honestly thinking about all the people who were lynched and the thousands and thousands of people in this country who are descendants of people who were lynched. And I’ve met some of them, you know, during this journey. … The work my great-grandmother was doing was helping people understand the violent kind of environment that Black people were living under and the lack of protection from the government there.
Duster: Yeah, definitely, she’s getting the recognition and credit for what she contributed to this country. She was a leader of the Alpha Suffrage movement, one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women and one of the founders of the NAACP. And this was in addition to what she did with her work as a journalist exposing lynching. And then [there is] her lesser-known work as [a] social worker in Chicago — she and my great-grandfather provided housing for Southern migrants when they were not welcome in other places in the city. She did so many things during her lifetime that still impact where we are today. … People know her name but don’t necessarily know what she did. So what I’m trying to do is help people actually know what she did.
Attiah: I am curious about your decisions to take on this very large mantle that your great-grandmother left. Were your parents or grandparents like, okay, we will officially anoint you as the bearer of our family’s mission?
Duster: I felt no pressure whatsoever to follow in her footsteps or anything. I think my grandmother and my parents did a good job informing us we were related to her, but also giving us a whole lot of space to be ourselves and not feel like we have this predestination of living up to somebody else’s reputation.
I actually tried to distance myself from my great-grandmother’s legacy. I felt that if I wanted to pursue journalism, I just didn’t want to always be compared to her. …
In 2008, the buildings [named for Wells] were torn down [in Chicago]. We had no say in it. And so we felt the city should replace it with something. And so I was encouraged to write a letter to Mayor [Richard M.] Daley, and basically was asking, what is the city going to do now? Ida B. Wells was a woman, not a building.
While I was working on the monuments projects around Ida, I became more aware of how underrepresented Black women are in public artwork. White men are 30 percent of the population but have [nearly] 90 percent of public statues. I want to diversify school curriculums. I’m trying to lift up other marginalized peoples and stories along with that of my great-grandmother.
Attiah: A number of Black journalists today are accused of being activists when we try to draw attention to issues that specifically affect Black people around the world. And your great-grandmother, in terms of the journalism canon, is one of the very key figures of what journalism can be as a driver of change. How do you speak to Black journalists about this?
Duster: Well, my take on it is that she didn’t care because it was a matter of life and death. One big thing to consider was that she owned [her] newspaper. And I think there’s a whole different dynamic when you are the owner than when you’re working for somebody. She self-published her pamphlets. And so she didn’t have to go through any gatekeepers to get permission to do anything.
Attiah: I know you’re tasked a lot with telling us what your great-grandmother did. Which is important. But I think it’s also kind of important for people to kind of get to know and maybe be inspired by your journey, too.
Duster: What I did in my book “Ida B. the Queen” is to try to humanize her. I wanted to know who she was, if she was like me. No one goes through [their] entire life without any self-doubt or discouragement. There were several situations that I’ve been involved in where it just seems like the resistance is so strong. I grew up hearing you can’t get through the door; you go to the side door. If you can’t go through the side, you go through the window. And if you can’t do any of those things, you build your own house.