A Fresh Look At A Visionary Leader – Ida B. Wells

If you’re looking for a hero in American history whose work and words have increasing relevance today, it would be difficult to find a better candidate than Ida B. Wells. Born in 1862 in slavery and living until 1931, Wells had an extraordinarily productive and courageous life, fighting for racial and social justice. She truly made a difference facing tremendous challenges, discrimination and hardship that we’re still addressing. Never forgotten by scholars, Wells has been the subject of multiple papers, articles, books and honors – from museums to her image on a US postal stamp. With national attention focusing more and more on the evils of racism, with the establishment of hate crimes and anti-lynching legislation, Wells’ work and influence are being rediscovered and reconsidered – again. In 2020 Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize – Special Citation for her investigative journalism. Just this year, Michelle Duster wrote an extremely interesting book about Wells, who is Duster’s great-grandmother. Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinarily Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells is a different – and very well done – non-traditional history. It’s accessible to a wide audience and Duster goes out of her way to make Wells’ life and battles connect to today’s issues.

The contours of Wells’s life demonstrate amazing drive and discipline from an early age. The eldest of eight children, Wells’ parents built a new life in Holly Springs, Mississippi, following the end of slavery. Her father was a successful builder and carpenter, active in local public life. The family worked hard to navigate very difficult times, as the Klan was powerful and Black rights were contested continuously. Tragically, Wells’ parents and one of her brothers died in when Ida was sixteen. She resisted plans to separate the siblings, took an exam to become a school teacher, and held her family together as the head of their household for two years until others could step up. Ida Wells became an adult, with tremendous responsibilities, quickly.

Wells then moved to Memphis, continued her education, and began a life-long effort to secure civil rights for Blacks and women. She sued a railroad for discrimination, winning her case but ultimately losing in the Tennessee Supreme Court. She taught and started writing for a local paper. Her articles criticizing Jim Crow laws were powerful – and also cost Wells her education job. She was not silenced. Wells’ account of an 1892 lynching in Memphis is harrowing and an outstanding example of her investigatory and writing skills. It remains an unforgettable account of a horror that killed thousands and kept Black families terrified for their lives. When I taught American history, I used it and other articles by Wells as primary source evidence of what racism was like for Blacks at the time. Wells’ anti-lynching work remained central to her writing and efforts for the remainder of her career. The University of Chicago’s library is home to Wells’ papers and many of her articles are available online. I encourage you to take a look.

In addition to Wells’ consistent writing, she became a sought-after speaker, and a national leader without an organization providing structured support. She traveled internationally, ran for elected office, and involved herself in many causes. Wells was a public intellectual, a voice unafraid to criticize and call out injustices, and an active partner in the formation of organizations and efforts to secure civil rights. She married, moved to Chicago, and tried to balance and life and career. Remember, too, that this was at a time when women were rarely public figures. Women, and especially Black women, faced tremendous discrimination.

This and much more are woven into Duster’s book. What makes Ida the Queen special is the conscious interspersion of Duster, her own life, and contemporaneous civil rights issues in Wells’ dramatic story. The book does not rigidly follow the traditional chronology of a biography. It moves around, with topics and issues clustered around themes, giving it a more accessible feel. It is beautifully illustrated, with a wide range of images. And it consistently and effectively draws connections between Ida’s life and struggles to those of others and issues we face today. This is not dry academic history. It is topical in a way that often eludes the traditional classroom. It spoke to me, too, of the vital importance of history as a discipline and a shared resource.

Duster is a writer, teacher and public speaker. I first met her through her role as a tutor at Wright College. She graciously agreed to talk with me about her book. In the course of our conversation, I learned about the how’s and why’s of the book, which went through many iterations. Duster did not want to write a traditional academic history. Instead, she wanted to engage younger readers – those in their teens and twenties – who may not have heard of Ida Wells or realized the lengthy historical context of the struggle for Black civil rights and rights for women. Duster’s goals for Ida the Queen was to make this historic figure relatable to current issues and to start a conversation. She has succeeded in both aims. It renders Ida B. Wells all the important today and is bound to start many a conversation. It is a book well worth your time and consideration.

David Potash

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