When will the new street signs go up honoring one of Chicago’s most historic and significant citizens, Ida B. Wells? Although I would have preferred that the city council select a much longer street to bear Wells’ iconic name, perhaps it is fitting that the name of this great woman is on a street entering into downtown from the Westside of the city where Black neighborhoods have been so disgracefully disinvested in, underserved, maligned, and, even removed. The signs should go up right away to inspire the next person who leads this city by reminding her or him that Ida B. Wells spent her entire adult life working tirelessly and courageously on behalf of the disempowered and unprotected, and that Black Chicago deserves much better than it is getting.
The genius of Ida B. Wells is that, through her relentless inquiry, intrepid investigative reporting, and the trenchant analysis of her findings, she discovered lynchings were really acts of terror being committed for the purpose of intimidation and control; and that “leading citizens” in different towns were involved in these atrocities that were meant to “keep [Black people] down.” Her friend, Thomas Moss, had been a prime example, for he had been an American success story. He was the first Black federal worker in Memphis, and had worked hard to save his money and become one of the owners of the People’s Grocery before he and his business partners were lynched. He had done nothing wrong; his “crime” was that he was a Black man who had been on the rise economically. Wells also discovered that, although it had been believed that lynchings were a response to the rape of White women, in most cases rape was not even alleged, and, where it was, most often the relationships between the Black men and White women involved were consensual—in many cases initiated by the White woman. Finally, Wells found that Black women and children were being lynched, too.
Not only do we need a street named for this “crusader for justice” (as well as a prominently displayed downtown statue), we need a mayor who can lead this city equitably with the same intellect, energy, innovative thought, and seriousness of purpose that were hallmarks of Ida B. Wells’ extraordinary life. A brilliant theoretician, activist, and journalist, Wells never ran away from a tough fight, and she was unfazed by the struggle inherent in standing up against a rigid power structure.
All Wells ever demanded was fairness and equality in all systems, and that is what West Siders and other marginalized people in this city want, too. At the beginning of her journalism career, while she was still a very young educator, Wells had written an expose about the poor conditions of the schools that Black students attended. As a result of those articles, her teaching contract was not renewed. Undaunted, and for the rest of her life, Wells was uncompromising in her pursuit of justice and did not hesitate to challenge anyone, Black or White, about societal ills she observed, solutions she found insufficient, or tactics she found languid or lacking.
Wells’ body of work included protesting the planned exclusion of African Americans at the 1893 Columbian Exposition here in Chicago (alongside such luminaries as Fannie Barrier Williams, another leading educator, writer, and activist who would become the first woman and African American on the Chicago Library Board, and the eminent statesman Frederick Douglass.) Wells was a founding member of the NAACP, she organized the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first Black women’s suffrage group in Illinois, and, at one time, she served as a probation officer—wrestling with the criminal justice system in Chicago.
Ida B. Wells was a problem-solver who sought intelligent, effective responses when she perceived a need. In 1910, as more and more Black migrants arrived in Chicago, fleeing Southern racism, she organized the Negro Fellowship League which operated a settlement home where lodging and recreational facilities were provided, as well as leads on jobs. She also helped found the first kindergarten for Black children, the first Black orchestra, and the Black Women’s Club Movement which was designed to uplift Black people through education and community development activities. Along with Richard T. Greener, a retired Black diplomat who had served in Russia and who had, in 1870, been the first Black to graduate from Harvard, she started a club for the preservation of Black history.
Who will be the Ida B. Wells of our time and stop the social and economic lynching of today; and where are those street signs?
© Rhonda Sherrod