Chicago, the major city with roots dating from a late 18th-Century settlement founded by a black man, achieved another historic Black First recently with the renaming of a street in the downtown section for legendary anti-lynching investigative journalist Ida Wells Barnett.
That renaming of a section of Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive makes Wells Barnett the first African-American woman to have a street named after her in Chicago’s downtown. Wells Barnett lived over half of her life in Chicago, the city with roots widely recognized as dating from the settlement founded in the 1780s by Haitian born fur trader Jean Du Sable Baptiste.
Wells Barnett is a co-founder of America’s NAACP – the nation’s largest civil rights organization. Her career spanned activism from civil rights to voting rights for women to creating a kindergarten for black children.
One day after receipt of that a long overdue recognition in Chicago on February 11, 2019, Wells Barnett received a unique honor over 3,000-miles away in Birmingham, England.
During the mid-1890s Wells Barnett twice toured England as part of her campaign against the terrorism of lynching perpetrated by white Americans. The bloody lynch scourge claimed over 4,000 lives in the United States between 1880 and 1941 with 82.5 percent of lynch victims being black men, women and children.
The impact Wells Barnett made in England coupled with the legacy of her life’s work led to her receipt of a historic plaque in Birmingham, the second largest city in England located 120-miles northwest of London.
The often-overlooked travels of Well Barnett through England, where she met prominent Britons and addressed audiences that numbered over one thousand people, helped launch the London Anti-Lynching Committee in 1894, reportedly the first anti-lynching organization in the world.
During her first trip to England in 1893, Wells Barnett stayed at a home of supporters in the affluent Edgbaston area of Birmingham. The original site of that house is now the location of the Edgbaston Community Centre. The Centre is the location for Wells Barnett historic plaque.
The ceremony unveiling the Birmingham plaque honoring Wells Barnett intentionally coincided with the founding of the NAACP, 110-years ago on February 12, 1909. One Invited guest at the that ceremony was a descendent of Well Barnett, her great grandson Dan Duster.
Duster, in a statement released before the unveiling, observed how his great grandmother’s travels around Britain “were significant in helping to sharpen her skills to fight for justice and equal rights.”
Duster noted that in Britain Wells Barnett was “able to further expose the international community to the extent, brutal violence and reasons used” to justify lynching.
Michelle Duster, the great granddaughter of Wells Barnett, spoke at the February 11th Chicago ceremony that finalized the street renaming approved by Chicago’s City Council in 2018. Wells Barnett settled in Chicago after racists forced her from her then home in Memphis, Tennessee because of her journalism that championed rights for blacks.
“She had the drive and determination to speak truth to power,” Michelle Duster said during the Chicago ceremony.
Wells Barnett exploded many myths surrounding lynching with investigative reporting published in newspaper articles, pamphlets and books. Defenders of lynching, that included journalists, often proclaimed lynching was rightful retribution against black men for their sexual assaults on white women. But reporting by Wells Barnett documented that many blacks were lynched for their economic success not alleged sexual crimes.
Wells Barnett wrote that false cries of rape by white lynch mobs were most often “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized…”
Born a slave in Mississippi, Ida B. Wells turned her journalism to exposing lynch horrors while living in Memphis. That followed the 1892 lynching of three friends in Memphis who were successful black businessmen. (Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis 37-years after the death of Wells Barnett in 1931.)
The sharp spoken Wells Barnett had opponents and admirers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. She endured many slights in her life, like being fired from a teaching job in Memphis due to her journalism advocating that blacks receive equal treatment.
One of the more poignant slights occurred in Chicago a year before her death, according to a 2001 account by historian Paula Giddings. That slight came when Wells Barnett attended a Negro History meeting that discussed a book by Black History Week founder Carter G. Woodson. That book’s examination of lynching contained no mention of the multiple anti-lynching actions of Wells Barnett.
Wells Barnett “was marginalized by the civil rights establishment including those who thought her too militant and yet incorporated her insights into their own struggles without crediting her,” Giddings wrote.
A key supporter of Wells Barnett during her life was iconic abolitionist/newspaper publisher Frederick Douglass. One collaboration between Douglass and Wells Barnett involved public condemnation of the 1893 world’s fair held in Chicago because of exclusion of contributions blacks made in America. Ida Wells’ future husband, respected black Chicago lawyer Ferdinand Barnett, also joined in that condemnation.
The organization responsible for that Wells Barnett recognition in Birmingham is the Nubian Jak Community Trust. That London-based organization has erected 42 plaques around England highlighting the historic contributions of black and minority people in that nation. Persons cited by those plaques include black Americans who impacted England during travels there like Douglass and Malcolm X.
Nubian Trust CEO, Dr. Jak Beula, praised Wells Barnett for her life spent “tackling racism and sexism.”
Dr. Beula noted that many “renowned African Americans came to the UK, and their visit had a major impact.” He said its “important” to make the international connection between blacks in Britain and the U.S. because “our global historical experience are very similar if not intertwined.”