Ida B. Wells Is Just Like Us: Bringing Babies to Work, Juggling Jobs, and Fighting for Freedom

In a new book, Michelle Duster shares intimate details of her great-grannie, Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells. Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty images

Ida B. Wells isn’t the household name she should be, especially when it comes to her place alongside other early civil rights activists. Very much a contemporary of W.E.B. DuBois, who was six years her junior, and Booker T. Washington, six years her senior, Wells was a suffragist, anti-lynching activist, and co-founder of the NAACP. Thankfully, her great-granddaughter Michelle Duster is sharing these details in a new book, Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells. This nonlinear account of Wells’ life shines a more robust light on the activist, writer, wife, and mother who was radicalized by the violent lynchings of three of her friends.

The Holly Springs, Mississippi, native and Rust College graduate wrote of the horrors in the pamphlets Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and The Red Record (1895), leading many today to describe her as an investigative journalist. Her 1890s move from Memphis to Chicago, in fact, was prompted by her need to leave the South. And now, a major downtown street there bears her name, and locals remember how she created the first Black kindergarten and helped charter the NAACP. Here, Duster offers insight into her great-grandmother’s work, life, and impact.

On Black men and the Great Migration

The Negro Fellowship League, which [Wells] founded in 1910, is some of the work that my great-grandmother did that is not as well-known as some of the other work that she did. Most people think of her as a journalist and as a suffragist, but they don’t necessarily know about what would be considered social work today that she did. She realized that Black migrants who were coming to Chicago during the first wave of the Great Migration were not welcome at the YMCA at the time. And she saw that some of these people were sort of falling into a trap that would make it easier for them to be arrested for loitering, gambling. She said the only place where Black people were welcomed was the saloon. So she wanted to give people, and these were mostly men, housing and job placement. And so that’s what the Negro Fellowship League did. It also provided a space for there to be entertainment so people would play checkers and play games.”

The FBI threatened her for supporting the Black soldiers killed in 1917 at Houston’s Camp Logan

“The soldiers were court martialed. Several were hanged. Others were sentenced to long prison sentences. My great-grandmother heard about the story and felt very strongly that these were American citizens that were being trained to go overseas to fight for freedom and democracy for this country. But in their own country, they were murdered, and treated as criminals. And so she wanted to give them a memorial and recognize them as martyrs. So she made buttons — just simple buttons — saying, ‘Martyred Negro Soldiers.’ And for that she was investigated by the FBI and considered to be subversive and they threatened her with treason because she was criticizing the government.”

Remarkably for that time period, her husband Ferdinand Barnett supported her work

“When it comes to what my great-grandmother Ida B. Wells was able to do after she got married, what strikes me is her husband, honestly, because he’s my great grandfather. And so I have a relationship with both of them. And everything that I understand about him was that he was a feminist. And he was very attracted to and interested in strong women because Ida was his second wife. His first wife was a trailblazer in her own way. So he was very willing to be an equal partner. He believed, obviously, that women were equal and he believed in being a partner. So he provided a way for her to have her time freed up so that she could focus on work outside of being a mother and a wife. He did most of the cooking.

And he made enough money at the time that they, from what I understand, did have a maid or somebody to help with cleaning. She had a nurse when she was traveling. … She was traveling with infants to some of the speaking engagements that she was doing and so she had a nurse to help her. Ferdinand, my great-grandfather, was willing to provide that for her and obviously willing to stay with the children that were still at home, even though she was traveling with a nurse for like, months. I mean, a couple of times, she was literally gone for more than a month. So they were partners. And, to me, that’s inspiring that it is possible for a woman to find a man who is actually supportive.”

Destroying myths about lynching

“The false narrative during my great-grandmother’s time was that Black men were violating white women, and therefore they deserve to be killed. She uncovered, first of all, that some of the liaisons between Black men and White women were consensual, which was a volatile revelation for people to even consider. But then, in addition, she proved time and time again that lynching was being used as a form of domestic terrorism to oppress and to intimidate Black people from striving for the American dream. So there was a lot of targeting of Black people who were successful and leaders and the idea that, if you get rid of them, then you oppress and intimidate communities to not strive anymore. She documented various lynchings, including ones that were against Black women. [In] one story a Black man was murdered and then his wife came to his defense, and then she was murdered. Nobody was safe during the time that my great-grandmother was living.”

On watching Vice President Kamala Harris during the inauguration

“My great-grandmother was involved in so many different initiatives to combat lawlessness and mob rule, oppression of African American women when it came to women’s movements. There was just a myriad of challenges when it came to opportunities for education and wealth building and housing. So many different challenges. And for us, as a people to have people like my great-grandmother fight consistently for us to be where we are today. We don’t have the same history of some of the other people in this country and we’ve had to overcome so much more. And for it to culminate in 2021, to have somebody who looks like us, who has benefited from the trailblazing hard work and efforts that so many of our ancestors put in, you know, it is moving.”

ATL-based Ronda Racha Penrice is a writer/cultural critic specializing in film/TV, lifestyle, and more. She is the author of Black American History For Dummies.

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