Ida B. Wells awarded special Pulitzer Prize

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Crusader Staff Report

Ida B. Wells, the Black female journalist who investigated lynching in the South during the Jim Crow era, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize citation 89 years after she died in Chicago.

The announcement was made Monday, May 4 at the Pulitzer Prize ceremony at Columbia University in New York.

During Wells’ time, Black journalists could not win Pulitzer Prizes. The honor was awarded to white journalists working at white newspapers. Most Black journalists worked for Black newspapers that were part of the Black Press.

Ironically, the first Black to win a Pulitzer Prize was Chicago’s Gwendolyn Brooks, who earned it in 1950 for her poem “Annie Allen.” The poem is about a Black girl growing up in Bronzeville.

Chicago shares a special bond with Wells. In 2019, the city renamed Congress Parkway after Wells for her contributions to the city and the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

The Chicago Crusader was founded in the former Ida B. Wells housing project in Bronzeville. Last year, Crusader Publisher Dorothy R. Leavell was given a special award by the Ida’s Legacy organization for serving 58 years at the newspaper.

Wells lived in Chicago at 3624 S. King Drive. She died in 1931 and is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery along with her husband, Ferdinand Lee Barnett. Her former home is a Chicago landmark.

Michelle Duster, Wells’ great granddaughter who lives in Chicago, expressed excitement after she learned about her great grandmother being awarded the Pulitzer.

“That is such an amazing honor,” Duster told the Crusader.

“She spent her life sacrificing to tell the truth about what was going on regarding lynching in her time. My great grandmother lost her printing press, faced death threats and a whole lot of sacrifices were needed on her part, but she never gave up.”

An investigative journalist, Wells filled a void at a time when white newspapers did not cover the murders of Black residents. After she moved to Chicago from Memphis, Wells fought for better housing conditions as hundreds of thousands of Blacks moved to the city during the Great Migration.

She was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862. Wells 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 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 Addams 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.

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