Culture

America needs a monument to Ida B. Wells

A conversation with Michelle Duster about her great-grandmother’s legacy and the appalling lack of monuments dedicated to women.
Culture

America needs a monument to Ida B. Wells

A conversation with Michelle Duster about her great-grandmother’s legacy and the appalling lack of monuments dedicated to women.

As of August 2017, there were over 700 monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers dotted around the U.S. At the same time, there are only a handful of monuments honoring black women historical figures, let alone women at all. There are Harriet Tubman Memorials in Harlem and Boston, Rosa Parks statues in Michigan, Washington, D.C., Dallas, and elsewhere. But still, no volume comparable to the number of white men honored in statue and monument form, some of whom fought against civil rights.

Over the past 10 years, one group in Chicago has been working to change that, starting with honoring one of the country’s greatest journalists and editors: Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Writer Michelle Duster, Wells’s great-granddaughter, is one of the people leading the charge. A lifelong resident of Chicago, Duster is attempting to raise the $300,000 necessary to fund a memorial in the city where Wells lived and worked, spending her career exposing the horrors of lynching and other forms of racist violence in the Jim Crow-era South.

Ida B. Wells with her children in 1909.

Ida B. Wells with her children in 1909.

Despite her importance in American history, it’s only recently that Wells-Barnett is getting her due in popular culture. From the 1940s onward, Wells’s legacy lived on through her work, but was mainly associated in Chicago with the once-stately, later-dilapidated housing project named in her honor. Today, one of her quotations is featured prominently at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. An investigative journalism organization supporting black journalists was founded in her name in 2015. The New York Times honored Wells-Barnett with a prominent entry in their new Overlooked obituaries project. And at the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice museum in Montgomery, Alabama, Wells’ anti-lynching work is prominently remembered.

The Outline spoke to Duster about the need to honor Wells-Barnett and why the hometown memorial conceived in her honor, to be designed by artist Richard Hunt, has yet to be erected.

How did you first learn about your great-grandmother’s accomplishments and her legacy?

I learned about her just like I learned about all the other family members that I have. When I was in kindergarten or first grade, [her legacy] was sort of a vague concept. In high school, I became more aware. I knew that she spent her life fighting for justice and civil rights and I knew that she was involved in several organizations that are still around today. But honestly, I just didn’t really think about it that much. It was just that’s what she did.

When did you get started with the mission to get this monument built for her?

When the [Ida B. Wells] Homes were slated to be torn down, from what I understand the residents basically came up with the idea, and the request to have something be created to honor Ida B. Wells. As a result of that request, there was a subcommittee formed from the overall committee called the Oakwood Shores Working Group, which is a group of different organizations that are involved in what they call the Plan for Transformation for that particular neighborhood. The committee that I am working on is a subcommittee of the Oakwood Shores Working Group, specifically to be involved with creating the monument.

Michelle Duster

Michelle Duster

So, I did not specifically spearhead the idea. But I was asked to join the committee because I wrote a letter to Mayor Daley after the Ida B. Wells Homes were eliminated, and I asked him what the city planned to do to still honor her. I initiated the contact with the mayor not knowing that they were already there was already some thought into how there was going to be some way to honor her. At the time I joined the committee, there was no specific plan. There was just a kind of an abstract idea that there will be something to honor her, but a lot of ideas floated around before we finally decided to have a monument versus other ways of honoring her. [That] was in 2008.

What has been your role over those past 10 years since you signed on?

I represent the family. My father also was originally in the group with me. We were liaisons communicating with our family to let people know what was going on, and if there were any ideas or concerns or whatever that our family members might have. I did request Richard Hunt: He is a native Chicagoan, he grew up in the neighborhood where the Ida B. Wells homes were and where she lived. It was important that the artist know the history, because the thing about this monument that’s different is that there was a significant community that existed for over 60 years in that neighborhood and was eliminated. There was a huge sense of loss. Thousands of people lost their homes.

And so there is a level of sensitivity that needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to all of the components that would be included in this piece of work. So because of Richard’s own personal history and his knowledge of everything I just mentioned, we felt comfortable that he would be able to incorporate all of those elements into the actual work that he wanted to create. In my opinion, it’s almost like getting today’s Picasso.

I was reading an article about the monument from the Chicago Tribune from 2012 that said "For many years the Ida B Wells name was attached to a place synonymous with crime, disillusionment, and decay." Do you feel like this monument is a way to change this association?

Yes. It’s very well known that when the housing community was first built and opened in that community, it was considered almost like paradise compared to a lot of the slum conditions that were in tenement housing during that time. But what happened was over the decades different housing policies took place. As time went on, it just became overcrowded and under-resourced.

During my lifetime, as I became older, [the Homes] did become associated with high crime, violence, dysfunction. That was kind of horrible for us. [It was] really the opposite of who she was and was about. I feel like this monument will reclaim her identity as her self and also be educational. We were deliberate about creating a monument versus a statue because it gives the opportunity to include biographical information and some quotes of hers and more than one image. In monument form, people can walk around and read about her and read some of her writing. That would be a way more in-depth representation of who she actually was versus just the name of a building and that’s it.

I understand that you recently visited the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, where Ida B. Wells-Barnett is honored for her work exposing lynchings.

Yes, it’s incredible. She should be honored, and I thought she would be. But I really was surprised at the level that she was mentioned and represented. The museum has her image included on a wall of civil rights activists; several of her quotes are included in prominent places; at the opening activities several people who were participating in the panels mentioned her name. And then at the lynching memorial, they have a sort of reflecting area and a stone that has her name on it.

A visitor at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

A visitor at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Overall, it was just an amazing experience. I’ve talked to Brian Stevenson who is Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative [the organization behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice], so he’s aware of what I’m doing and has been supportive in trying to help me gain support for this project here in Chicago. I feel like what we’re doing here is of national significance. And I do believe once it’s completed, people who really are enamoured with [Wells-Barnett] will make the effort to go see it and reflect on it. I say that because people have started doing things like going to the cemetery where she’s buried on the anniversary of the 19th Amendment. People just feel a need to have a physical location that they can go to feel connected to that person, and I believe the monument will serve that purpose.

In addition to the Memorial, the New York Times recently did two big pieces about Ida B Wells. Like you said, you’ve known about her your whole life. How does it feel to see people honoring her so much this year?

It feels great. She has been marginalized and under appreciated for a very long time. There was always a subset of people who knew about her, but I’ve met several journalists who never heard of her. In Chicago the general public knew about her because of the housing community, but I think even some people who lived in the housing community didn’t know who she was. The fact that she’s becoming more well known outside of a niche group is necessary, because she contributed so much in the fight for justice do[ing] work that would help our country become what its promise is. I think she’s an American hero, and she should be known by everybody.

Could you speak to the obstacles you faced over the past 10 years in getting this monument erected?

I had no idea that it would take this long. I mean, I’ve never worked on a project like this before in my life, so I didn’t know what to expect. I thought $300,000 dollars was not a whole lot of money, and I felt like because Ida B Wells is so well known and Richard Hunt is so well known that the combination of the two would really have a lot of interest and support. I really thought it was almost a slam dunk, dream team kind of thing.

A historical marker about Wells in Memphis, TN.

A historical marker about Wells in Memphis, TN.

But there are quite a few restrictions on where the money can come from, and it all has to be pretty much private money. The committee [I’m working on] is not an organization. It doesn’t have a structure from a legal standpoint. That has been a barrier when it comes to even applying for funding, because a lot of companies would do something for maybe a 501c3 organization [a structured, tax-exempt charitable organization registered with the IRS] but not a separate committee that doesn’t have a structure. We have applied for some grants and been told that they would be interested in revisiting our project when we get closer to finished. There’s all of these weird restrictions that have been eye opening to me.

What do you think the timeline is for the monument now?

My hope is that it will be that the monument will be up next year, and I really think [it] is possible for this to get funded by the end of May. I’m seeing a groundswell of commitment to helping make this happen. I think there’s something going on not just with this monument, but in general in our society. I think there’s a higher level of consciousness about the lack of monuments to women. The whole controversy regarding the Confederate monuments has [brought up the question] for people: What kind of way does this country wants to represent history? Are we are a country that is going to fight for Confederate monuments as a representation of what our history is, or are we going to actually have some diversity when it comes to monuments?

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