The life and career of Ida B. Wells, a widely known investigative journalist and an early leader in the civil rights movement, was commemorated over the weekend with the unveiling of a plaque and honorary street sign. Wells, a long-time resident of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, died in 1931.
Michelle Duster, a great-granddaughter of Wells, said the honorary street naming and historical marker are important. “Such a history, I think, needs to be preserved,” she said.
Michelle Duster approached Alderwoman Sophia King about three years ago promoting the idea of having an honorary street name and historical marker placed at 37thStreet and King Drive, in the area that Wells once lived in.
“I felt it was important for there to be something tangible to help people remember that there was an entire housing community located in that area,” Duster said. “My fear was that land will be developed with who knows what, and there will be a complete memory erasure of what was there before. I felt that since the homes were so significant and stood for so long, it’s an important history for not only for the city of Chicago to remember, but in particular, the former residents.”
Currently, a historical marker is placed a half of a block away from where Wells used to live, and the honorary street name is located along the same block in which she stayed. “She actually walked in that space, and I just thought it would be a reasonable honor for her to be recognized in her own neighborhood,” Duster said.
July 16 marked what would have been Wells’ 157thbirthday. The unveiling of the plaque and honorary street sign over the weekend is one of two events taking place during Wells’ birthday month.
Also, during July, Duster is partnering with GirlTrek to host the fourth annual IdaTrek. The two-mile walk will take place in the Bronzeville community, starting at the Ellis Arts and Recreation Center.
Wells’ great-grandson, Dan Duster, said it’s humbling to know that his great-grandmother is being recognized in more ways than one. “It’s long overdue for her, and I wish that other people could get that recognition, as well,” he said.
Michelle Duster spoke highly of Wells and her accomplishments, recalling what she, as a child, learned about her great-grandmother in speaking with a grandmother and an aunt.
“All I knew was that she was fighting against lynching and we knew that, but there were more ways she fought for civil rights, fought for equality, fought for suffrage,” she said. “She was a journalist, obviously, whose life was threatened because of what she wrote. She lived through dangerous times. She was very outspoken; she was very blunt and direct; and she was obviously very strongly opinionated and had a very strong conviction of what was right and wrong. She was not willing to compromise at all, and that can be a good and bad thing. When she made her mind up, that was it. There was no negotiating, no compromise.”
Michelle Duster’s grandmother and aunt have both since died. She said she has a lot of questions about Wells that she wishes she could get answered. One part of Wells’ legacy that people sometimes forget is her work in the suffrage movement, which she said is deserving of more recognition.
“They peg her more as a journalist and more as a civil rights activist,” she said. “The suffrage work that she did is sort of minimized. There is an effort made by some scholars, museum executives, and artists to ensure the fact that black women’s contributions and involvement in the suffrage movement is documented and recognized.”
Michelle Duster said black women have a different story than most white women who were involved in the suffrage movement. “It was almost like there two parallel suffrage movements,” she said.
Dan Duster said he wishes the work in the suffrage movement of his great-grandmother and other black women more well known.
“It should be brought to light more,” he said. “Women have been largely overlooked. … There are a lot of she-roes that contributed to women’s suffrage.”
Wells left an imprint not only on Chicago, but also on Holly Springs, Miss.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Brooklyn, N. Y.
Michelle and Dan Duster made a trip to Holly Springs recently to take in the sight of the historical marker that was placed in honor of their great-grandmother.
“There’s a pattern,” Michelle Duster said. “She was [influential] in four different places, and all four want to honor her in some way. It’s good just to see that more and more people around the country are not only recognizing what she did, but they want to pay tribute to her, and I think that’s great.”