Born into slavery but forever with presidents

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NEW IDA B. WELLS street signs are replacing the old Congress Parkway signs.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett becomes first Black woman with a major street named after her in downtown Chicago

By Erick Johnson

It came in the middle of Black History Month, one week before President’s Day and two weeks before thousands of Blacks will exercise their right to vote in the city’s mayoral elections.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett spent her entire life reporting on scores of lynchings that white newspapers ignored. As a suffragist, Wells-Barnett fought for the right for Black women to vote.

Born into slavery, her name now sits among the streets named after U.S. presidents, in downtown Chicago.

In a ceremony filled with symbolism, city, county and state leaders at the Harold Washington Library on Monday, February 11, officially dedicated the renaming of Congress Parkway as Ida B. Wells Drive, marking the first time Chicago named a street after a Black woman. She became the second Black leader to receive such an honor, 50 years after South Parkway was renamed for slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The two aldermen who sponsored the bill, Sophia King (4th Ward) and Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) were among several dignitaries who praised Wells-Barnett for her courageous spirit in her civil rights crusade for Blacks and Black women.

Eighty-eight years after Wells-Barnett was laid to rest at Oak Woods Cemetery, she was finally given a dignified honor that reflected her contributions to a nation that considered its Black citizens inferior to their white counterparts.

“Today a humble hero will get a visible tribute, one that transcends generations just as Ida B. Wells’ legacy has done so well,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “She overcame long odds and high obstacles with hard work and eternal hopes. She listened to the voiceless and the vulnerable. That is how she wrote history. Now Chicago will tell her story.”

Alderman Sophia King (4th Ward) described Wells-Barnett as an “original boss,” who “spoke truth to power and changed the landscape of Chicago and the world.”

Reilly said, “This honor is long overdue. I believe that it’s wrong that until this day, no street in downtown Chicago has ever been named after an African American woman. It’s wrong. I can’t think of a more deserving individual than Ida B. Wells to right that wrong today.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in her remarks noted, “It’s impossible not to reflect on the importance of this day. Today, Chicago will forever know the name of Ida B. Wells.”

Wells-Barnett’s great granddaughter, Michelle Duster expressed her pride. “When I was walking over here, and I saw the sign, I just had to take a moment and just stare,” she said. “We actually did this. … We actually managed to stick with the idea of having an African-American woman honored in such a prominent way, in such a large city. It’s just a really, really big achievement.”

Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells-Barnett was 16 when both of her parents died of yellow fever. She dropped out of high school and worked as a teacher to help take care of her five siblings. She eventually moved to Memphis.

At 30, she embarked on an anti-lynching campaign in 1892, after a mob dragged Thomas Moss out of a Memphis jail in his pajamas and shot him to death over a feud that began with a game of marbles. From interviews and documents, Wells-Barnett discovered that most rape cases involving Black men were incidents of consensual interracial sex. She reported her findings in a newspaper she co-owned and edited, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.

In her time, Wells-Barnett became the most famous Black woman in America.

Her newspaper office was bombed by an angry mob, outraged by her news stories. She eventually moved to Chicago. She was a friend of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The two participated in the 1893 Columbian Exposition also known as the Chicago World’s Fair in Jackson Park.

In 1895 she married Attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett, founder of the Conservator, Chicago’s first Black newspaper.

In 1909, Barnett was one of the founders of the NAACP and she worked with suffragist Jane Adams to help open Chicago’s first kindergarten for Black children. She also founded the Negro Fellowship League for Black men and boys and started the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, for Black women seeking the right to vote.

Wells-Barnett’s former home at 3624 S. Martin Luther King Drive is a city landmark.

At the woman’s suffrage parade in 1913, Wells-Barnett refused to march in the back of the procession with the rest of the Black women.

When Wells-Barnett died on March 31, 1931, the New York Times and other white newspapers did not run her obituary. She was buried at Oak Woods Cemetery, which was segregated at the time, but Blacks with white connections were buried there under clandestine circumstances.

Despite her contributions, there were few dignified monuments that honored Wells-Barnett. The Ida B. Wells public housing projects built in 1939 were demolished in 2011. The only surviving namesake tribute to Wells-Barnett was the Ida B. Wells Elementary Preparatory Academy, located a block away from Wells-Barnett’s former home.

Leaders say the newly created Ida B. Wells Drive is the most fitting tribute, one that will help keep the legacy of Wells-Barnett alive for generations to come.

Dorothy Leavell Chicago Crusader publisher, lauded King and Reilly for pushing forward the renaming of Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive. Leavell is also chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, generally referred to as the Black Press. She commented, “Ida B. Wells is one of our most revered publishers and I am proud to be here to represent NNPA. On a personal note, let me remind you that the Chicago Crusader has its roots in the Ida B. Wells housing project.”

DOROTHY R. LEAVELL (third from left) poses with Chaz Ebert, Michelle Duster (great grandaughter of Ida B. Wells), Alderman Sophia King (4th Ward), Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), Cook County Commissioner Bill Lowry, Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. (Photo by Keith Chambers)

Leavell later noted that Wells-Barnett was instrumental in acquiring work for Blacks during the Columbian Exposition. “Her talents were so many. Do we claim her as a publisher, journalist, suffragette, activist? The young who will know her name have many paths to follow.”

How the honor came about was a struggle in itself, one that parallels the racial obstacles that Wells-Barnett fought to overcome in her lifetime. Activists initially wanted Balbo Drive renamed after Wells-Barnett, but that stirred tensions in Chicago’s Italian community, which wanted the street to remain named after Italo Balbo, a decorated World War I hero who in 1933, famously led 25 aircraft across the North Atlantic to Chicago and back.

The Chicago League of Women Voters and city leaders agreed upon the idea of renaming Congress Parkway after Wells-Barnett. The decision was viewed as a compromise, but the deal was considered better than the original proposal since Congress Parkway is longer, and a more prominent street that runs from the Jane Byrne Interchange to Columbus Drive in Grant Park. Along the way, the street goes past the Harold Washington Library and the iconic Buckingham Fountain, a Chicago landmark.

The portion of Ida B. Wells Drive that runs by the Harold Washington Library on State Street had the new street sign up during the dedication on Monday. The bus stop recordings on several CTA bus routes that cross Congress Parkway on Michigan Avenue now say Ida B. Wells Drive for riders.

Wells-Barnett’s name will be among the many downtown Chicago streets that are named after U.S. presidents, among them the Founding Fathers of America. Benjamin Franklin. George Washington. James Madison. James Monroe. John Adams. Andrew Jackson. Martin Van Buren. Ida B. Wells.

Congress Parkway was originally named after President John Tyler.  A slave owner who had 40 slaves, Tyler fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He is the only U.S. president whose coffin was covered by the Confederate flag after he died in 1845. On September 2, 1872, the City Council changed the name to Congress Parkway. The proceedings of the City Council do not include a reason for the change, but Tyler’s Confederate past may have angered Union veterans who served on the Council.

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