Crusader staff report
It will be located in the park right smack in the middle of a picturesque brick walkway that’s lined with 10-foot trees. When completed, it will be a monument honoring Ida. B. Wells-Barnett, but it will be the exclamation point to a movement that shook up Chicago and its elected officials. Congress Parkway is now poised to bear the name of the pioneering Black journalist and that’s only the beginning.
The publicity and heightened interest is reeling in donations for Michelle Duster, the great granddaughter of Wells-Barnett.
Some 87 years after Wells-Barnett’s death, Duster wants to build a monument where Mayor Harold Washington, Crusader founder Balm L. Leavell, and other prominent Blacks grew up before they made it big.
They lived in the Ida B. Wells Homes, a sprawling complex that had 1,662 seven-story apartments spread out over 47 acres. They were built in 1939 as white flight was in full swing in the Oakland neighborhood. Originally called the South Parkway Garden Homes, they were renamed the “Ida B. Wells Homes” in June of 1939 shortly after the homes were completed.
Steps away from Wells-Barnett’s home at 3624 S. King Drive (it was then South Park Way), the homes provided relief to thousands of Blacks who lived in crowded, unsanitary tenements when most Chicago neighborhoods remained segregated, with restrictive covenants.
After years of neglect, disrepair and crime, the Ida B. Wells Homes were demolished in 2000. All that’s left is an open field, a Mariano’s Supermarket, and a park where moms push baby strollers and joggers run to burn calories off their waist lines.
Since the buildings were demolished nearly 20 years ago, the Ida B. Wells Preparatory Elementary School in Bronzeville and Mariano’s ethnic gate on King Drive kept the crusading journalist’s name alive. But to Duster’s and Wells-Barnett supporters they were still not fitting enough for a journalist, abolitionist and suffragist who made significant contributions to Blacks and women in America and Chicago.
After fighting for better housing and the rights of women, Wells-Barnett died in 1931 and was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery with her husband, Ferdinand Barnett, who founded one of the city’s first Black newspapers, the Chicago Conservator in 1878.
Long before city leaders last month proposed to rename Congress Parkway after Wells-Barnett, Duster and a dedicated group of community activists were trying to raise funds for a Black woman that few outside the Black community knew about. That was 2011. Then her phone started ringing off the hook after March 8, when the New York Times profiled Wells-Barnett in its inaugural column Overlooked, which included women that were not included in its newspaper at a time when Blacks and women were often omitted in its obituaries.
One week after the article ran, the Times published a podcast featuring Duster, who spoke about her famous great grandmother.
“And that really blew things up,” Duster told the Crusader. “People were asking what’s going on with this monument. I had some tools to work this, to use that momentum, so I just started making appeals on Twitter for people to support this project. I mean the number of donations that came in were incredible. I think we’re getting close to 2,000 donations, most were between $10 to $100. I would say the average donation was $50 to $60. She said most her donations for the campaign were made from April to today.
Duster said so far her fundraising campaign has raised $190,000 and the budget is $300,000. With more than over a $100,000 to go, the future is looking bright for Duster’s goal.
Duster said the monument will be located between 37th and 39th streets, off Langley Avenue, near the eastern border of the former Ida B. Wells Homes. “Langley has a walking pathway and you have the plaza areas along the way. It will be a beautiful spot. You’ll be able to see the monument two blocks away and from all sides.
“I think the way I visualize how it will look, it’s going to be very impressive to have a dynamic presence in that space,” Duster said.
Duster said many donors told her “I can’t believe this hasn’t been done up until now. This should have been done long time ago. This is overdue.”
Then there were the project’s detractors who said a monument for Wells-Barnett “would be a waste of money.” According to Duster, “They said ‘you should have this money used for programs for kids.’ But this is for kids. I just feel very strongly that public ways of recognizing people who have contributed to this country is for kids. It’s good for kids to see people who look like them in public spaces, and for them to learn who these people are. I feel like it’s an extension of the classroom to have historic information in public spaces. We live in a diverse country but diversity is not represented in public spaces. I really feel that it is part of public education.”
Duster said the interest in the life of Wells-Barnett “can be attributed to what’s going on in America politically- the assault on our community and the assault on the press.
“I think people are paying attention to what Ida did in her time as a journalist,” Duster said. “It seems like people are saying ‘wait a minute. We’ve been down this path before.’ I’m seeing that a lot of journalists are studying her tactics and how she handled criticism.”