This week, Michelle Duster joined Carey Cranston, President of the American Writers Museum, online to discuss the legacy of her great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells. Michelle Duster is an author and educator who regularly speaks on the legacy of Ida B. Wells. She has written, edited, or contributed to eleven books; and has written for several publications. Wells is the subject of a new book by Duster that is coming in 2021.
Born to enslaved parents in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Wells was a brave and tireless warrior in her anti-lynching crusade. Her investigative journalism exposed the truth about injustices against African-Americans. She was willing to give up her life in the process. Wells likely built courage and confidence resulted from growing up in a household with a father who was politically active and civically engaged. She was also among the first generation of formerly enslaved people who had access to formal education.
After losing her job as a teacher in 1891, Wells poured her energy into journalism. In 1893, threats to her life for investigating lynchings forced Wells to move to Chicago. She later married attorney Ferdinand Lee Barnett, and together they ran the Conservator, Chicago’s first Black newspaper. Duster mentioned how her great-grandmother’s journey motivates her to keep writing in difficult times.
Ignored by White newspapers in the north after trying to convince them that lynchings in the south were unjustified, Wells went to speak in England in 1893, where she received a favorable response. She used her international influence to convince the English people to boycott southern cotton, hoping the economic impact would stop the lynchings. Based on the articles she wrote while in England, Wells felt a sense of freedom and had a much more significant impact than she did in the U.S.
Wells fails to mention in her autobiography that she marched in the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade. She refused to go to the back of the parade, which was designated for Black women, but joined the Illinois delegation instead. Though she was an advocate for women’s suffrage, Wells faced opposition after asking to use the platform to fight against lynching due to conflict between the abolitionists and suffragists.
Wells passed away in 1931 before completing her autobiography. Though she was well-known during her lifetime, her family feared there was an attempt to erase her from history after her death. In her autobiography, Wells even mentions that she took control of her story, concerned that people would diminish her work. Over the next few decades following her death, Wells’ youngest daughter, Alfreda Barnett Duster, worked on finishing the autobiography. Initially, she had difficulty finding a publisher due to the civil unrest and racial tension of the 1960s. Finally, in 1970, the University of Chicago agreed to publish the memoir.
In spring 2020, the second edition of Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells was published with updates by the University of Chicago Press following recent acknowledgments of Wells’ legacy. Among other things, she was recognized earlier this year with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize citation for “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African-Americans during the era of lynching.”
Wells’ writing remains relevant, as we are still dealing with the same issues. Duster describes it as being extremely descriptive. “She paints a picture with her words,” she said. She also had a way of using people’s writing to incriminate them and build her case against lynching.
Duster has never felt pressured to follow in her great-grandmother’s footsteps. Instead, she was encouraged as a child to develop her sense of identity. She recalled attending a college where she was the minority and felt like people misunderstood her. She faced constant misjudgment, being from the southside of Chicago. Based on the experience, she knew she needed to change the narrative to reflect the African-American experience accurately.
When I asked how young people can help carry on the legacy of Ida B Wells, Duster said that they should live in truth, educate themselves, be their best selves, and speak up. You can see the entire interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBKmkzxgvns. Learn about free programming https://americanwritersmuseum.org/.
Donna Montgomery is a Community Affairs and Arts Writer in Chicago. Find her on social media at @GoldenLadyWrites.