CHICAGO — Ida B. Wells, the pioneering Chicago journalist who walked into towns across the South that did not want her there and reported on the lynchings of Black men, has been pretty busy lately.
She may have died in 1931; she’s buried beside her husband, Ferdinand Barnett, in Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side. And yet, last spring she received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Then last summer, a mosaic portrait of Wells, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and women’s suffrage (for which she had fought), stretched over 1,000 square feet of Union Station in Washington, D.C. In 2018, the New York Times finally wrote her obituary; then the Chicago City Council renamed Congress Parkway as Ida B. Wells Drive; and a couple of years ago, the city placed a large stone bearing Wells’ face at the corner of 37th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, to mark the location of the former Ida B. Wells Homes housing project, which, for decades, had been the only formal recognition of Ida B. Wells found in Chicago, where she had spent half her life.
Michelle Duster stands there now, at that Bronzeville corner, short, serious, wearing a beige overcoat and fuzzy Oscar the Grouch-green mittens, huddled against the cold.
That stone is there because of Duster, Wells’ great-granddaughter.
She pushed for a formal reminder of the housing project; she asked family members to give $100 each to pay for a marker; she worked with 4th Ward Ald. Sophia King to get it placed. Part of 37th Street is also an honorary Ida B. Wells Way because of Duster. She gets stuff done. A pretty good chunk of her day — every single day — is dedicated to Ida B. Wells.
You might even argue, without Duster out there advocating for her great-grandmother these past dozen or so years — not just in Chicago, but in Holly Springs, Miss., Wells’ birthplace, where there is both an Ida B. Wells post office and Ida B. Wells-Barnett museum — there might not be quite the continuous groundswell of interest in Wells and her legacy.
“All of these things,” she tells me, “these memorials, markers, they are not like the water coming out of your faucet. They do not just appear. But then we’re probably all guilty of enjoying something without ever realizing what’s behind the scenes, pulling it together.”
She glances past the stone at the large rectangular parcel of land where part of the housing project once stood. It’s an empty lot, its grass coppery and picked at by geese.
“That (marker) took less time than you’d think,” she says, “much less than the statue.”
Meaning, the tall abstract monument being created by Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt, the first traditional large-scale civic memorial to Ida B. Wells. Duster spent the better part of a decade trying to raise the $300,000 to get it completed. Then, on Wells’ birthday a few years ago, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones — herself a Pulitzer winner for the New York Times’ 1619 Project and cofounder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting — along with Chris Hayes of MSNBC, “Orange is the New Black” author Piper Kerman, Chicago activist Mariame Kaba and others encouraged the project and nudged Duster past her fundraising goal. Duster now expects the memorial — planned for a median along 37th Street, in the heart of where the Ida B. Wells Homes were demolished in 2011 — to be erected before the end of this year.
First thing, though, there’s this new book, “Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells,” a breezy, accessible and colorful get-to-know of a biography — also written by Duster. Which means weeks of talking about Ida B. Wells with (virtual) audiences and journalists. She directs me to the schedule of her virtual book tour, continuing for weeks, night after night after night. Wednesday alone, she had seven interviews scheduled. She sounds tired.
Indeed, reading “Ida B. the Queen,” I stopped at the chapter about Duster herself: With a bit of ennui, she recalls growing up on the South Side and assuming the legacy of Ida B. Wells was her grandmother Alfreda’s work. Alfreda Duster was Wells’ youngest child. Michelle Duster saw interest coming from filmmakers and halls of fame, but she also mentions that she and her brothers “were taught to have our own identities, to not speak much about our relation to Ida B. Wells, because we did not do any of her work — she did.”
Duster went to Whitney Young Magnet High School, then Dartmouth College. She teaches business writing at Columbia College. She worked on documentaries, and for a couple of years as a program coordinator for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library system. She’s edited books on activism and Michelle Obama; she’s edited a pair of books of her great-grandmother’s writings; she’s written herself for Time and Essence magazines, among many others. Next year alone she has two illustrative books coming from Macmillan, one about “trailblazing black women,” and one about, yes, Ida B. Wells.
There are times when Michelle Duster feels lost behind the stewardship of Ida B. Wells.
She doesn’t sound bitter or resentful about that. It’s just how it is.
“It’s a classic Catch-22,” she says. “If people never say my name, then people never know my name. And yet, I get it: Ida is a historic figure, people don’t know my name. But there are times, doing this, when I almost don’t have a name anymore. I’m just ‘great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells.’ In headlines, in advertising: ‘Great-granddaughter to speak.’ I’m like, OK, wow. People have actually told me before that ‘Ida is the draw,’ and that her name is the one recognized and so the only one anyone wants to know about.”
Her friends see this.
Bernard Turner, a Chicago historian who’s worked with Duster now on two children’s books (and who is working himself with Congressmen Bobby Rush and Dick Durbin to get Bronzeville listed as a National Heritage Area), said, “She’s pretty humble about the situation, but Michelle would like to be known for her work, too. She doesn’t want to only be asked about Ida. Put yourself in her shoes: How would you feel if you were only ever asked about your great-grandmother? People do want to be identified as their own independent thinkers.”
It’s the burden of any steward: A bit of themselves gets left behind in the biography of another.
It’s an irony of sorts.
Her grandmother, Wells’ daughter, didn’t dwell on her mother’s accomplishments, Duster says. “She asked about our lives. If when Ida came up, it was more about values. Speak up for yourself, understand that are deserving of respect.” Ida’s family would become a family of educators, social workers. Dinners were focused on politics and current events “with the expectation that you hold your own during them. My family are all strong personalities and you will get run over if you don’t hold your own.” Of Ida’s many, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, more than a dozen stayed in Chicago. About 30 years ago, the family established the Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation to promote the legacy of Wells; today, the foundation partly provides scholarships at Rust College in Mississippi, Wells’ alma mater. For years, her father was its driving force, “until he got tired, which I get now — this is a lot of paperwork, a lot of taxes, endless forms.” Duster, 57, wonders often about passing the legacy on herself.
Talking to her, you get a sense of someone who is eager to get back to their own writing. In “Four Hundred Souls,’” the new anthology of Black history co-edited by the bestselling Ibram X. Kendi (“How to Be Antiracist”), Duster contributes a compelling essay on the legacy of the 1919 Chicago race riots that morphs into a tidy pocket history of race in Chicago.
“I have written a lot of things that will never be published, and a lot of things that were, but if there’s a focus, it’s on the professional and middle class, educated Black communities. Those are not told enough. The pervasive narrative is Black people live in the ghetto, in crime-ridden neighborhoods, they’re gangsters. No, we live in houses, we work jobs. Obvious as that sounds, more than a century after my great-grandmother’s writings, the kinds of questions people ask me all day long tell me that’s not so obvious.”
The great work continues.