By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter
“Virtue knows no color line, and the chivalry which depends upon complexion of skin and
texture of hair can command no honest respect.”
Wise words, possibly heard recently from one of the multitude of voices advocating for equal rights for African Americans. You may be surprised to know that they were written over 100 years ago by the pioneering African American journalist Ida B. Wells. Her name should be familiar. In May of this year, Wells was honored posthumously with a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for “her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
Born in Mississippi in 1862, Wells moved to Chicago in 1893 and soon married attorney and newspaper owner Ferdinand Barnett. Unfortunately, until recently many Chicagoans knew her name only through the high and low rise housing community projects named in her honor, the Ida B. Wells homes between 37th Street and 39th Streets, Cottage Grove and Martin Luther King Drive. With the federal government’s take over of the Chicago Housing Authority, the Ida B. Wells homes and others were slated for demolition. By 2011, the Ida B. Wells homes were history.
But Wells, the woman, was not forgotten. Today, her great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, is ensuring that her name and accomplishments will be properly recognized, not just in Chicago, but also throughout the country. “I probably would have had the same level of interest if I had not been related to her. I feel that the way African American women are portrayed in the media is damaging and so I always wanted to be part of the solution,” said Duster.
Duster was generally aware of her great-grandmother’s writings, but did not initially focus on her family’s legacy. Graduating from Dartmouth College with a degree in psychology, she completed coursework in an MFA program at Columbia College. She later moved to New York to work in advertising while she completed her degree at The New School. Back in Chicago, she moved to the client side and worked for such companies as Motorola, Sterling Plumbing, and several investment firms.
In 1988, Ida B. Wells’ grandsons, Duster’s father Donald Duster, her uncle Charles Duster and three other siblings had established a family foundation “to protect, preserve, and promote” her legacy. Initial efforts focused on research, journalism awards, and scholarships.
Michelle Duster with her first book
“2008 was a turning point for me when the “Great Recession” hit. I had worked for years in jobs that were considered ‘safe’ with reasonable income and benefits,” she recalled. “I had a background in marketing so decided to pursue creating and marketing my own work.” Duster decided to collect some of her great-grandmother’s writings first published in a booklet for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. With her publication of Ida in Her Own Words, Duster’s life began to change.
Duster’s second book
“I was the most aggressive in the family from a selling perspective. I was going to conferences, book fairs, and advocating for her work to be included in journalism curricula,” she said. In 2010, Duster edited a second book on Wells’ writings from Great Britain, Ida From Abroad, and her efforts began to have an impact. Meanwhile, she was hardly alone in her concern about Wells’ legacy as the ten-year demolition of the Ida B. Wells homes got underway in 2001.
Shirley Newsome at the Harper Court
grand opening 2013
Community activist Shirley Newsome had lived in North Kenwood since 1979 and had heard about Wells for years. A member of the committee urging that the housing projects be torn down, Newsome learned more about Wells herself. “I became more and more involved in the history …it became important to the residents who lived there ….the older people talked about the early days of beautiful gardens…the younger people had no idea that Ida B. Wells was a woman [of note],” she said. Newsome helped form a group to explore ways to honor Wells. “We wanted benches, we wanted markers, we wanted a monument…some citywide street-naming.”
Duster learned about the committee when she wrote to Mayor Daley asking for something to be created in Wells’ name. She soon joined the committee as the family representative and was able to provide historical information, as she was editing one of her books at the time. Eventually, Duster became the public face of the committee and the Fundraiser-in-Chief for a monument. She kicked off the campaign with a fundraiser at the Cliff Dwellers Club on Michigan Avenue. This was an opportunity for a new audience to learn about Wells’ background and meet the sculptor who had been commissioned to create the monument.
Richard Hunt with the model for the top section
of the Ida B. Wells Monument
Richard Hunt, at 85 years old, is one of Chicago’s and the nation’s most prominent sculptors. A graduate of the School of the Art Institute, he has over 125 sculptures on public display and in collections around the world. “I always knew [about Michelle],” said Hunt. “Her father and uncle – we knew each other – her uncle was a structural engineer at Skidmore Owings & Merrill and we worked on some projects together.” The Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee approached Hunt with the idea for a sculpture that would be a gift to the city. They were looking for something with scale for its proposed outdoor location in the center of a parkway at 37th and Langley Avenue that would include text panels and images of Wells with something sculptural on top. Now that the necessary funds have been raised, Hunt is moving ahead with production of the work, which should be done this summer. A date for the unveiling has not been set, pending developments related to the Covid-19 virus.
This spring’s awarding of the posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Citation has given Wells new national visibility, but this award was in fact not due to any direct efforts on Duster’s part. She and the foundation were naturally delighted, but their efforts had been focused on other Chicago honorific efforts. Initial efforts were made to rename Balbo Drive. Alderman King who worked with Alderman Brendan Reilly on the project, reports that efforts were intense. “I was involved in a lot of negotiating before we settled on Congress Parkway,” she said. The new name was dedicated in early 2019.
Michelle Duster with Prof Garrett Felber
All projects honoring Wells have not been so successful. Garrett Felber, a professor of African American history, recalled efforts in 2018 to get the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi renamed the Ida B. Wells School of Journalism and New Media. The Meek name had just been removed after Ed Meek, the donor, posted racist comments on social media. A teach-in was organized and Duster was invited to campus to speak. A meeting with the dean, however, ended with no resolution as the school hoped to keep the donor’s funding, an ultimately unsuccessful effort. Felber praised Duster’s efforts, “Not only would she volunteer her time but was proactive and did independent research and made the case of why this was important.”
2017 Opening of Ida B’s Table in Baltimore
Despite such setbacks, Duster has been singularly available to support many others who seek to raise the profile of her great-grandmother. The Real News Network, a nonprofit established in Baltimore, Maryland to provide an alternative to corporately sponsored media, decided to open a restaurant in their headquarters for added revenue. Wanting a newspaper theme for the restaurant, the board contacted the foundation and pitched the idea of a restaurant named Ida B’s Table that would be a place to meet and share ideas. “We thought, wow, what an honor,” Duster said. Pre Covid-19, the restaurant sponsored lectures and spoken word performances.
In this year’s 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, Duster is also highlighting Wells’ leadership in promoting the right to vote for black as well as white women. As PBS’s American Experience documentary “The Vote” has recently highlighted, Wells and other African American suffrage leaders were not welcomed by their white sisters, who were trying to woo southern support for their cause.
Today Duster teaches at Columbia College and tutors at the Chicago City Colleges’ Writing Center at Wilbur Wright. She continues to write, most recently editing a collection of essays on Michelle Obama’s Impact on African American Women and Girls and contributing to such publications as The North Star, Essence, and Teen Vogue. These duties have not kept her from giving lectures, testifying before the Chicago City Council, or appearing on a panel at her alma mater, Dartmouth. Duster’s original goal was “to tell my reality. I became aware that my life was different from what many thought about black people.” In her work today, she understands “the power in media and in images that lead to narratives that lead to stories that lead to attitudes that lead to policy…we need to tell our own stories and be authentic to who we are.” The ability to communicate effectively is key.
Ida B. Wells was Duster’s paternal great-grandmother. Duster gives special credit, however, to someone else who had the most influence on her. “I give my mother a lot of credit, In addition to being influenced by the legacy of my ancestor. I am… because of my mother’s unwillingness to ever be silenced or marginalized. She was an amazing role model.” Ida B. Wells would have been 158 years old on July 16th. No doubt Wells would have been very pleased with her grandson’s choice of a bride and their daughter who will continue to tell the stories that need to be told. She has several projects in the works that will do just that. An anthology she co-edited with Trina Sotira titled IMPACT: Personal Portraits of Activism will be published this fall, and Simon & Schuster will publish her book about the life and legacy of her ancestor titled Ida B. the Queen in early 2021.