• Ida B. Wells

    Chicago Finally Has a Street Named After a Black Woman. For Michelle Duster ’85, It’s Personal.

    Thursday, March 14, 2019
    News Type

From statues to streets, most monuments and memorials share something in common. Can you guess what it is?

Here’s a hint: There are about 5,500 or so statues in the U.S.—but fewer than 400 of them depict women, according to a 2011 account in The Washington Post. And as far as Michelle Duster ’85 is aware, fewer than 30 of those depict specific African American women. In comparison, there are currently over 700 Confederate statues and monuments in the U.S., among the 1,700-plus various tributes, from schools to parks to street names, honoring Confederate personalities.

Caption: Michelle Duster '85. Photo by P. Dembinski. 

In Duster’s hometown of Chicago, where she writes, speaks, and teaches at Columbia College, there were no statues of women until last year. There were also no downtown streets named after women—nor were there any streets named after African Americans. But that changed a month ago, when the city unveiled the street sign for Ida B. Wells Drive: a tribute to the legendary anti-lynching activist, women’s rights crusader, and journalist, who also happens to be Duster’s great-grandmother.

“When I finally saw the sign, I had to remind myself that it was real.” Duster says. “It’s been such a long process, so much happened along the way—it was so exciting to actually see it.”

For years, Duster has been advocating for Ida B. Wells’ recognition in the city she called home. Born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862, Wells traveled the South as an investigative journalist, facing threats to her life in order to document violent lynchings. After rioters destroyed a newspaper she co-owned, Wells eventually moved to Chicago’s South Side in 1895. There she lived until her death in 1931, raising four children and deeply impacting local civic life: She founded the city’s first black women’s club and black kindergarten, as well as the Alpha Suffrage Club, a black suffrage organization.

The city had named a housing project after Wells in 1941—but that project, Ida B. Wells Homes, was razed in 2002. Some former residents initiated the formation of a committee in 2008 to establish another monument for Wells, but after working for years to raise the needed $300,000, progress was slow. In 2018, Duster amped up fundraising efforts, taking the movement to Twitter and making national appeals. Within six months, with the help of two other women who took an interest in the project, over $200,000 was raised to fully fund it.

From left: Michelle Duster '85, Chicago Aldermen Sophia King and Brendan Reilly, Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Photo by Stephanie Cross Henderson. 

The wave of momentum to honor Wells has been growing. In July 2018, Chicago’s City Council voted to rename Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive. The new street sign was unveiled to much fanfare at a ceremony on February 11, 2019.

That was a big moment for Duster, but she’s just getting started: Now, it’s time to build a monument. The tribute will be set along a walking path on a grassy median strip in Bronzeville, near the former Ida B. Wells Homes. “That’s deliberate because the Homes were very substantial on the South Side,” says Duster. “We want to create something that will help people remember that the Homes existed, and also help people remember and be inspired by who Ida B. Wells was as a woman.”

As for the monument itself, it won’t look anything like the dusty statues of white men that dot parks throughout America. Designed by acclaimed local sculptor Richard Hunt and featuring various etchings, it will be more modern and interpretive. “Ida did so many different things in her life, and we wanted to represent the kind of work she did versus being really literal,” Duster says. “That gives us the flexibility to depict all the aspects of her.”

Wells is not the only African American who has found a champion in Duster. This year Duster received Dartmouth’s Ongoing Commitment Award for working with various projects and organizations that create, document, and promote untold stories of African Americans. She’s written or edited nine books, including, most recently, Michelle Obama’s Impact on African American Women and Girls (2018). She is currently working on a biography of her great-grandmother, which is slated to be published in 2020.