For many Chicagoans, the name Ida B Wells likely conjures up the public housing complex named after her: the Ida B Wells Homes, since demolished. But how many of us know who she was and what she accomplished? In the words of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West: "She remains one of our most shamefully neglected crusaders" (The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country).
Women's History Month serves to remind us of the contributions of heroines like Wells, who was a journalist, anti-lynching activist, and feminist who fought for the civil and economic rights of blacks, as well as for the rights of all women.
She was, among her many other accomplishments, a sort of Rosa Parks of the 1880s. As a black schoolteacher in Mississippi, she rode the train to work, and after she was forcibly removed from the train for refusing to move to the segregated car, she sued the railroad. Although she lost the suit on appeal, she wrote about it, which led to a career as a journalist and activist, during which she wrote about racist practices and women's rights. Following a series of articles on lynchings that she wrote, the newspaper of which she was part owner was destroyed, and she received death threats. This led her to move to Chicago, where she continued to write and crusade against lynchings and other injustices. She was a co-founder of the NAACP and founder of the Alpha Suffrage Club, possibly the first black women's suffrage organization.
On a local level, among many other good works, she attempted to stop the segregation of Chicago Public Schools and started the Negro Fellowship League, which offered lodging, a social center, and a reading room for black men who had migrated north.
She was fierce, outspoken, considered too radical by some of her fellow activists, and, unfortunately, died before she completed her autobiography, Crusade for Justice. In addition to several children's books about her, the library owns four biographies of this fascinating woman, the titles of which give you a sense of her personality:
To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells
'They Say': Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race
To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells
You can pick up a biography of Wells on the 4th floor, where you'll find many other biographies of great women past and present. Not in a reading mood? Celebrate Women's History Month with a feature film or documentary on women ranging from Louisa May Alcott to Jane Goodall. Here's a list of selected DVDs.
To learn about efforts to memorialize Wells with a monument in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, click here.
The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.Ida B. Wells