Belated Recognition for Anti-Lynching Journalist Ida B. Wells
A stately three-story Romanesque Revival style house sits on a quiet, residential street in Bronzeville, Chicago. Just up the street, the Victory Monument, erected in memory of black infantry regiments that served in World War I, stands tall.
It is fitting that these two places are in such proximity. The elegant home was that of Chicago transplant and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett from 1919 until her death in 1931. And though she is only just now receiving appropriate recognition, her accomplishments have long warranted attention.
Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, Ida Bell Wells came into activism and social justice naturally. In 1884, at age 22, she sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad for unfair treatment. Wells had purchased a first-class ticket in the ladies’ car but, after she had taken her seat, a white conductor ordered her to sit in the black section, which had no first-class seating. Wells refused and was ejected from the train. Backed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875, she won her lawsuit and was awarded $500 in damages. However, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the decision in 1887.
While the lawsuit proved Wells’ unwillingness to be bullied or acquiesce to discrimination, it was another event that drove her journalism and activism.
“There was lawlessness, violence, and extreme oppression and she understood that the only power she had was to expose the truth about what was happening,” says Michelle Duster, Wells’ great-granddaughter.
On March 9, 1892, Wells’ friend and People’s Grocery owner Thomas Moss was lynched along with two of his workers, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart. The local newspaper, the Memphis Appeal Avalanche, called it unlikely “that the details of this tripple [sic] tragedy will ever be known to the world, and it is left to conjecture to define the incidents of that morning.”
Wells had a different view. Her investigation, published as a pamphlet on June 25, 1892, so enraged Memphis locals that they burned her press, the Free Speech and Headlight. Threats of further violence forced Wells to leave Memphis permanently.
Wells tried to effect change and champion her cause everywhere she went. After leaving Memphis, her passion for justice briefly led her abroad to England, where she undertook a four month speaking tour. Returning to the States in 1893, Wells settled for good in Chicago, Illinois.
“My success in England alarmed the people of the South, and some courageous Southern editors attacked me personally in their papers. The lowest and most abandoned woman…is not so bad as [I] was depicted by the Memphis Commercial.”Ida Wells, quoted in a July 30, 1894 edition of the New York newspaper "The Sun"
Though Wells turned her attention to motherhood following her 1895 marriage to Chicago lawyer and editor Ferdinand Barnett, she nonetheless left her mark on the Windy City. She founded the Negro Fellowship League in 1910. The league grew from a reading room to a full-fledged organization, hosting prominent speakers such as social worker pioneer Jane Addams and historian Carter G. Woodson. It also offered lodging to young men who came to Chicago in search of work.
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In 1913, Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, which would be the first and most important black women’s suffrage organization in the state. The group sponsored Wells’ participation in a Washington, D.C., march in support of a suffrage amendment to the Constitution. Though national universal suffrage remained distant, Illinois granted women suffrage in the summer of 1913, making it the first state east of the Mississippi where women could vote.
Wells’ Bronzeville home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark in 1974 and was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1995. Even so, it took until last year for the city of Chicago to start altering its approach to Wells’ legacy. On July 25, 2018, Chicago’s Congress Parkway was renamed to Ida B. Wells Drive; official signage followed on February 11, 2019. And a monument to be erected in Bronzeville is also currently in the works.
“She was about justice and did it in a way that was unapologetic. She didn’t compromise her integrity or her cause,” says Bronzeville Alderman Sophia King. King was instrumental in the renaming of Congress Parkway. She initiated the name change and worked with community groups to make it a reality. “[Wells] walked through fear into justice because a lot of [the things she did] at that time could have gotten her killed.”
In Chicago, Wells’ name had long been associated with the low-income housing project named after her, the Ida B. Wells Homes. The renaming of Congress Parkway is part of the city’s attempt to expand and nuance that association.
“It’s important in history who we choose to celebrate and who we don’t,” said King. “I think it’s significant that we now have a street in Chicago—downtown Chicago—named after a woman who happens to be African American. And it’s the first time in the history of the city that we have a street named after a woman or a person of color.”
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