The Legacy of Ida B. Wells

Wells, Ida B., 1917.

Photograph of Ida B. Wells wearing a button she created to publicize a memorial service for African-American combatants court-marshalled and hanged in Houston, TX in the summer of 1917. The button reads “In Memoriam Martyred Negro Soldiers Dec. 11, 1917."

Alfreda M. Duster briefly discusses her mother’s legacy of social and political heroism in the introduction to Wells’ autobiography, which Duster edited from Wells' original manuscript for publication as Crusade for Justice in 1970.

Ida B. Wells will be remembered most for her fight against the lynching of Negroes, and for her passionate demand for justice and fair play for them. In the preface to her autobiography she mentions that a young lady compared her to Joan of Arc. The analogy is, at best, strained, but the odds against her were in many ways even greater. True enough, Joan was a peasant girl in a time when peasants and girls had nothing to say to the ruling class in France. But Ida B. Wells was a black woman born into slavery who began openly carrying her torch against lynching in the very South bent upon the degradation of the blacks. Joan had the advantage of rallying a generally sympathetic French people to a common patriotic cause. Ida Wells was not only opposed by whites, but some of her own people were often hostile, impugning her motives...

The most remarkable about Ida B. Wells-Barnett is not that she fought lynching and other forms of barbarianism. It is rather that she fought a lonely and almost single-handed fight, with the single-mindedness of a crusader long before men or women of any race entered the arena; and the measure of success she achieved goes far beyond the credit she has been given in the history of the country.

In the decades since the publication of Crusade for Justice, Ida B. Wells' life and career have received long-overdue recognition, in the city of Chicago and throughout the United States. In 1974, the Chicago home of Ida B. Wells and Ferdinand Barnett, at 3624 S. Martin Luther King Drive, was added to the National Register of Historic Places and named a National Historic Landmark. Since 1983, the Ida B. Wells Award has been given by the National Association of Black Journalists and Northwestern University to those who "have provided distinguished leadership in increasing access and opportunities to people of color in journalism, and improving the coverage of communities of color in American media." Wells was the subject ofan award-winning film Ida B. Wells: A Passion For Justice produced in 1989. Several books have been written about her, including To Keep the Waters Troubled: the Life of Ida B. Wells by Linda McMurry, Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching by Paula J Giddings; Ida B. Wells-Barnett: A Voice Against Violence by Patricia and Frederick McKissack; Princess of the Press: The Story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett by Angela Shelf-Medearis; and Ida Wells-Barnett: Civil Rights Leader by Steve Klots.

In Wells' hometown of Holly Springs Mississippi, the Ida B. Wells Museum and Cultural Center of African American History was founded in the Spires Bolling House, on the property on which Wells was born, and the town's post office was renamed in her honor. In 1990, the United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp depicting Wells to honor her life.

Many elementary and high schools around the United States have been named after the legendary Ida B. Wells. In 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama became the first in the country dedicated to more than 4,000 lynching victims. The memorial also honors Wells, along with other African American women who risked their lives in the fight against racial terror. The Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation seeks to preserve and promote the legacy of Wells by supporting programs and organizations that prioritize education, journalism, social justice, and equality. In February 2019, Congress Parkway in downtown Chicago was renamed as Ida B. Wells Drive, the first street in the city to be named after a woman and person of color. Michelle Duster, Wells' great-granddaughter, led a successful campaign to raise funds to for a monument to Ida B. Wells, to be erected in Chicago sometime in 2019.

In the words of Michelle Duster,

Ida B. Wells did not allow herself to be marginalized or silenced. Even though she faced threats, lost property, and endured criticism, she felt what she had to say was important enough to say it. She refused to be silent. She refused to make herself small. She stood up. Spoke out. And she made a difference for all of us.