Chicago has honoured the unsung hero and 1800s investigative journalist, Ida B. Wells, who campaigned against racist lynching of black men and pushed for women’s right to vote.
Major downtown Chicago thoroughfare, Congress Parkway, was renamed Ida B. Wells Drive on Monday making it the first major street in the city named after a black woman.
Dozens of dignitaries including award-winning journalists, activists and residents celebrated the already installed bright green street sign bearing her name, months after the City Council approved it.
The city leaders gathered at the Harold Washington Library for the ceremony said it was an opportunity to honour her in a more dignified and glorified way and shed light on her extraordinary life.
“This woman … was not just an inspiration to me, as a black woman in politics, but one who endured so much so that we could all stand here today in service to our communities,” said Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton who was quoted by the Chicago Tribune.
“She had such a strong sense of morality. She was going to tell the truth even if it came to her own detriment. Can you imagine a black woman at that time, going into territory where a black man or woman had literally been strung up and lynched and asking questions about why this was and what happened?” said New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
“She was the most famous black woman in the world. And yet it takes until 2019 to get a street named in her honor in the city where she is buried. I think that speaks to the way we have always erased the contributions of black women in this country. It is Ida’s time,” he added.
The New York Times published her obituary last year as one of the iconic people it failed to acknowledge after their death.
The overlooked Ida B. Wells, who changed her name to Ida B. Wells-Barnett after her marriage to Ferdinand L. Barnett in 1895, is receiving a lot of national attention now and her contributions to the improvement of the economic and social status of African-Americans are being highlighted.
Her great grandaughter, Michelle Duster, said the moment was overwhelming especially after the family’s quest of raising $300,000 toward a monument in her honour.
“When I was walking over here and I saw the sign, I just had to take a moment and just stare. We actually did this. … We actually managed to stick with the idea of having an African-American woman honored in such a prominent way, in such a large city. It’s just a really, really big achievement,” she said.
Ida B. Wells helped in the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association for Colored Women. She mentored W.E.B. DuBois and was close friends with abolitionist and freedom fighter Frederick Douglass.
Wells, according to history, was the most famous black woman in the United States during her lifetime. She was living in Memphis and working as an editor of a local newspaper when she started the campaign against lynching through her articles.
In 1892, three black men were attacked and arrested after they fought back. A white mob later dragged them out of jail and lynched them. This infuriated Wells, and through that, she began investigating and reporting lynchings in America.
She travelled for months alone in the south, researching and conducting interviews on approximately 700 lynchings from previous years. Her aim was to question the narrative at the time that said that black men were lynched because they raped white women.
Her findings revealed that rape was never the case, instead, there had been a consensual interracial relationship. Wells realized that lynching was used as an excuse to do away with black people who were acquiring property and wealth and to sow fear into them.
She published these findings in several editorials in the newspaper she co-owned and edited, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.
Her stories were widely accepted by the public.
Wells was born into slavery in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, during the civil war. Her parents, as well as, her younger brother died from a yellow fever epidemic in 1878 when she was 16.
Wells found work as a teacher to support the rest of her siblings while completing her education at night and on weekends. She later moved to Memphis, where she became a journalist and civil rights
When she was 21, she had a heated confrontation with a white train conductor who forced her off a train car reserved for white women. She sued the railroad but lost on appeal. She subsequently urged African-Americans to avoid the train.
At age 25, Wells was the co-owner and editor of the Free Speech and Headlight, the local black newspaper she used for her campaigns. Her printing press in Memphis was, however, destroyed when she left town. This was followed by threats to kill her if she returned.
Wells had to stay away from the south but still toured the US and UK while speaking on public platforms to increase awareness about her campaigns.
In 1895, she married Ferdinand L.Barnett, a lawyer and civil rights activist from Chicago. She published a pamphlet, the Red Record, the first statistical record of the history of American lynchings.
Wells later contested the Illinois State Senate but did not win. She worked for several years as a probation officer, before she passed away of kidney disease on March 25, 1931, at 68.