Ida B. Wells: A Chicago Stories Special tells the story of the trailblazing investigative journalist, civil rights leader, and suffragist. Through interviews with her descendants and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ida B. Wells’s story is compelling and relevant as her life speaks to the current day.
Born a slave but emancipated during the Civil War, Ida B. Wells worked in Memphis, TN as a teacher. She began writing about segregation and inequality while working for the Memphis newspaper. Ida B. Wells eventually moved to Chicago, where she wrote about racism, inequality, women’s rights, and lynchings. She was an outspoken organizer and activist working diligently in the civil rights movement and the women’s suffrage movement. She was often sought out for public speaking engagements around the world. She was also one of the founding members of the NAACP.
Ida B. Wells was fearless in her approach to journalism. She mainly took issue with the false narratives painted by other media outlets that justified the lynchings of black men, accusing them of raping white women.
“That old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern men are not careful, a conclusion might be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”-Ida B. Wells (published in the Free Speech 1892)
Her bold approach often made her the subject of threats and attacks. She called white southerners out on their racism, and the real reason she believed whites lynched blacks was that they wanted to hinder their economic progress.
The federal government placed Ida B. Wells under surveillance and labeled her as a ‘race agitator”. Despite the threats, Ida B. Wells continued her investigative reporting. She even wrote for the Chicago Defender about the East St. Louis Race Riots in 1917 and various other publications.
Written and produced by Stacy Robinson, Ida B. Wells: A Chicago Stories Special honors the depth of her commitment to justice and equality as a black person and as a woman. It honors her reporting and the impact it had on changing public opinion regarding lynching. When asked why the telling of this story is important today, Stacy Robinson said, “The painful racial reckoning that Americans experienced over the past year harkens back to the struggles Ida B. Wells faced more than a century ago. In this film, we’re looking at the past in a different way…and at how America and race relations have changed or not changed.”
Ida B. Wells: A Chicago Stories Special also details the woman behind the activism. With accounts from her great-grandchildren and Nikole Hannah-Jones, viewers are offered insight into the challenges and personal battles with sexism and racism in the 1900s that Ida B. Wells while pursuing justice. The documentary also delves deeper into her personal life. Married to Ferdinand L. Barnett until her death, she was also a working mother of six children, which did not go unnoticed by Stacy Johnson.
“The things that she struggled with during the 1890s and 1900s as a woman were very similar to things that contemporary women struggle with today. She is a mother of six. She is a working mom who has young children, so she had to get nannies. She was taking her children with her on speaking engagements. She was juggling, like contemporary women are juggling today, and she was conflicted about it. There were times when she chose not to do the work, to stay home with her children. And she got pushback from it from other people who were working in the movement who would say, “How could you? How could you desert us?” That resonated with me for sure.”
Ida B. Wells and her groundbreaking work is the foundation that many journalists and aspiring activists stand upon. Ida B. Wells: A Chicago Stories Special helps to cement the legacy that continues to influence a generation. In 2020, Ida B. Wells was honored with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for “Outstanding and Courageous Reporting.”
The hour-long documentary film Ida B. Wells: A Chicago Stories Special airs tonight, Friday, May 21, 2021, on WTTW.
Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSanders20.