Ida B. Wells spent her life crusading against lynching in the South, after her close friend Tom Moss and two of his employees were lynched by a mob of around 75 men. Born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, she became part-owner of the Memphis Free Speech (a newspaper owned by my own ancestor, Pastor Taylor Nightingale). And in 1908, she co-founded what would become the NAACP.
“Our country’s national crime is lynching,” she said during a speech in 1900. “It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them.”
But for all of her advocacy and accomplishments, where are the monuments to Ida B. Wells? Where do we solidify her, literally, in U.S. history? And where are the statues that commemorate the woman who devoted her life to exposing the pervasive and uniquely American injustice of lynching?
These are the questions Michelle Duster, Wells’ great-grandaughter, has been asking for years. Duster is a native of Chicago, where she’s primarily worked as a writer, educator, and event planner.
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“I really think if we’re going to move forward as a country, we absolutely must be truthful and honest about what happened,” Duster said of U.S. history. “How can we reconcile the fact that our country is the product of an incredible level of violence?”
What we choose to commemorate, and how we choose to do so, is a direct representation of our history and values.
Earlier this year, the New York Times decided that its readers should pay more attention to Wells, noting that “whenever possible, Wells named the victims of racist violence and told their stories”—reminiscent of parts of the #BlackLivesMatter movement of today. As a special project, the Times published a series of belated obituaries for women ignored by past editions of the paper, including Wells.
“Obituary writing is more about life than death: the last word, a testament to a human contribution,” the project introduction reads. “Yet who gets remembered—and how—inherently involves judgment.”
Monuments, too, are a testament to the human contribution. They are the people and ideas we quite literally set in stone. And they are the things meant to be remembered beyond our lifetimes.
“Ida B. Wells-Barnett is one such person … whose life, work, contributions, passions, and commitments have literally seeped over the decades into our consciousness, regard, and ongoing activism,” said Professor Jacqueline Jones Royster, the editor of Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in an interview with Rewire.News.
There are hundreds of monuments in the United States to remind of us of the Confederacy, and in turn, the legacy of slave patrols, lynching, and violence. How we choose to enshrine U.S. history will mean different things to different people, but it makes plain our values system. The Charlottesville rally, where one counter-protester was killed in 2017, was a gathering point for white supremacists protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. And in Chicago, anti-racism groups protested a Confederate monument in Oak Woods Cemetery that was being celebrated by the Sons of the Confederacy and asked for it to be replaced by a statue of Wells, who is also buried there.
Duster believes that, regardless of the national conversation around the removal of Confederate statues, Wells deserves a statue in her own right. While she always knew of her great-grandmother Ida B. Wells, she wasn’t always prominently involved in an effort to publicly advocate for her ancestor’s memory. But she has spent the last ten years concerned that Wells’ memory is fading from the public consciousness in an era that she believes needs it most.
“The public memorialization of history in the United States is through bronze, stone, film, and other materials that can endure through the centuries, whether in the open air or in museums, and that are capable of functioning as dramatic springboards for re-connecting us with our values and principles,” said Royster.
Built in 1941, the Ida B. Wells Homes public housing project in the South Side of Chicago was one such place. The homes were built for Black residents of Chicago, the city where Wells spent more than 30 years raising her family, continuing her work, and even running an unsuccessful campaign for elected office.
But in 2002, the Chicago Housing Authority began to demolish the row houses one by one, citing real estate concerns. By 2011, the project, which had once housed thousands of people, had completely vanished.
“After it was eliminated, I felt like it started to fade from public memory,” said Duster. “That’s when I started getting concerned that she would fade from memory.”
A subcommittee of a local community group overseeing the neighborhood formed in an effort to ensure that Wells, and the community that carried her name, would be remembered. Duster got involved soon after. The group commissioned Richard Hunt, one of Chicago’s most notable Black sculptors, to build the monument just south of 37th Street in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, where the the row houses once stood.
The monument is intended to be more than 20 feet tall and have excerpts of Wells’ writings engraved on its base. After the monument is built, organizers say that smaller art pieces will be commissioned to enhance the area around the monument and provide more context for Wells’ life and legacy.
“The monument will be a space that will spark other activities. A space that they can go and gather and remember,” Duster said. “For 60 years people lived there, so there’s thousands and thousands of people that are connected to that space. And it will have meaning for them.”
In the last seven years, the group raised around a sixth of their $300,000 goal directly on their website. But because of renewed interest on Twitter, they’ve raised about double that amount in just one month. In April, racial justice organizer Mariame Kaba committed $1,000 of her own money to the effort and challenged others to help her raise at least $10,000.
“In my view, Chicago should be very proud that Wells called Chicago home, that she used her talents and expertise locally to make a difference in her city, and not just in her nation,” said Royster. “Chicago owes this acknowledgment, not just to Wells and her relentless efforts to create a better world, but to yourselves and to what should be a ‘grateful’ nation.”
Wells believed the way to right wrongs was to bring them to light.
A monument to Wells, a rejection of complacency in the face of our nation’s past misdeeds, could do exactly that.