Skip to content

Activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett Becomes The First Black Woman To Have A Monument In Chicago

Activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett Becomes The First Black Woman To Have A Monument In Chicago

She is cemented in history!

Civil rights activist, educator, and pioneering journalist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, had a monument dedicated in her honor in Chicago last Wednesday. It is the first monument devoted to a Black woman in the city's history. Her great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, has been working on getting her great-grandmother honored for more than a decade following the destruction of the Ida B. Wells homes in Chicago in 2008.

The Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Monument was created by Black Chicago artist and sculptor Richard Hunt, and dedicated to the South Side neighborhood where Wells-Barnett lived. The bronze sculpture features her likeness with a flame on top of bronze columns with one of her famous quotes: "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them."

"Most people still don't know what she did," Daniel Duster, great-grandson of Wells-Barnett, told reporters. "And so the fact that Chicago has decided to honor her, and it's been 13 years in the making, I have a feeling of joy, excitement, appreciation, and humbleness."

Photo Credit: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP

Michelle told reporters that traditional statues of Wells-Barnett were considered, but she and those involved in the project wanted something interpretive, which she said projects Wells-Barnett better than the literal. 

A fundraising campaign financed the monument to Wells-Barnett that her great-granddaughter has been leading over the years. She tweeted that journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and abolitionist, Mariame Kaba, helped bolster the fundraising efforts.

Anthony Rogers, the co-chair of the Ida B. Wells Monument, said funds that weren't used for the monument are going to Chicago's public arts program. They will also go toward phase two of the Oakwood Shores Redevelopment Plan for more mixed-income housing units.

"We're standing on sacred land," Lamont Baker, an Ida B. Wells Homes resident, told reporters. "This is a touching moment because right there across the street is where my grandmother ... birthed one of the biggest families in Ida B. Wells Homes."

Michelle added, "Hopefully, it becomes a point of pride to Bronzeville, the kind of thing people want to serve as a backdrop to their lives here. That's what I want — a gathering spot."

Speakers at the commemoration included Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Alderwoman Sophia King. They said that Wells-Barnett paved the way for their careers and ability to lead.

"I stand on her shoulders as an elected official, like literally, because during the women's suffrage movement, the state of Illinois got the right to vote almost over 10 years before the 19th Amendment was passed. And I think it passed because of efforts like hers," King said.

Hannah-Jones was also in attendance, which was serendipitous since it was the same day she was finally offered tenure at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. The 1619 Project writer has long spoken about the impact the anti-lynching crusader has had on her work as a journalist. Her Twitter handle is “Ida Bae Wells,” an homage to the late writer.

Wells-Barnett was born into slavery in 1862 on a plantation in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and freed at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Education was essential to the Wells family. Her father, who was once a carpenter while enslaved, was involved with the Freedmen's Aid Society, which helped start Shaw University, a school for the newly freed Africans. At 16, when her parents and a sibling died from a yellow fever outbreak in 1878, she got her teaching certificate and began working at a small school near her town. 

At 30-years-old she was a newspaper editor in Memphis, Tennessee when she began her campaign against lynching after her best friends were murdered. She traveled across the South, interviewing witnesses and reading reports of similar events. She discovered that in 1892 alone, 161 Black people were lynched in the United States

In "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases," she wrote that lynching was "an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized." She also wrote an article for the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight that advocated for Black people to leave the towns of their oppressors and move west. Due to her speaking out, the white supremacists in the community threatened her to no avail. It wasn't until they burned down the building of the Free Speech that she decided to move up north where she could speak out against injustice freely. 

She helped to found several civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Association of Colored Women. Wells-Barnett died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931, at 68. Chicago named a street after her in 2019, and in 2020 she was finally awarded a well-deserved posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on lynchings.

We stand on your shoulders and will continue to keep your legacy alive.

Photo Credit: Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times