In March this year, the New York Times finally published an obituary for the investigative journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. It came 87 years after her passing. “Wells is considered by historians to have been the most famous black woman in the United States during her lifetime,” the obituary read. On her birthday, July 16, donations poured in for a physical remembrance–one that will, at last, fittingly commemorate Wells-Barnett in Chicago, where she lived for more than 35 years.
“I think it was $42,000 in one day,” says Michelle Duster, Wells-Barnett’s great-granddaughter and a professor at Columbia College in Chicago. “And since then, I’ve been getting messages from people asking if it’s too late to donate.” With that cash infusion, Duster and other organizers have raised nearly $300,000–which means the monument is fully funded.
I’m so thrilled that my great-grandmother’s legacy will be commemorated by having her own street in downtown Chicago. First Black woman to do so. Goodbye Congress Parkway, hello Ida B. Wells Drive! #IdasTime #IdaBWells pic.twitter.com/Hzc8z2sKz0
— MLDwrites (@MichelleDuster) July 25, 2018
The former building that held her name
For Duster, this project is years in the making. When the government took over the the Chicago Housing Authority and started razing a Bronzeville housing project named for Wells-Barnett, people in the community formed a committee to find a way to memorialize her. In 2008, Duster separately made a similar request to then-mayor Richard M. Daley, after which she and her father were asked to join the committee. “I just didn’t want her legacy to fade from memory,” Duster says.
It took a few years to decide on a monument and recruit Chicago-based sculptor Richard Hunt for the project, so fundraising only began in 2011. But more than half the money raised for the monument–$170,000 of $270,000–was the result of a big fundraising push just over the last four months. One reason for the slower timeline, according to Duster, was that they wanted to ensure the fundraising process was inclusive of people in the community who felt personally invested in the monument.
“I think this project is a little unusual, compared to some other public pieces, because you’re dealing with a sense of loss of a community,” Duster says. “There are a lot of emotions involved in losing your home and having what some people might view as outsiders coming in to recreate something that [they] may feel like they’re left out of. So there was a really strong effort to include former residents of the Ida B. Wells Homes and the community at large.” That meant, for example, hosting fundraisers with affordable ticket prices. Duster says there were also setbacks along the way–grants that didn’t pan out and her own father’s passing–that prolonged the process.
“I was going to figure out some kind of a way to get this thing funded”
All that changed this year, after a shift in perspective. “I made a vow to myself that I was going to figure out some kind of a way to get this thing funded,” she said. “I thought about the project as bigger than the neighborhood in Chicago, and then bigger than the city. And I started really thinking about it as a national project.”
I've given. You should too! https://t.co/bUxlj1DKTc
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) May 18, 2018
Duster turned to both the contacts she had garnered through the years, as an author and speaker, and a key organizing tool–Twitter. Since joining the platform in March, Duster has rallied to her cause people with a far greater following, including the likes of activist Mariame Kaba and Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones (who cofounded an investigative journalism organization in Wells-Barnett’s name back in 2016). Duster says she took a very “deliberate” approach to Twitter, tagging specific journalists who she thought might be interested in the project. Twitter also kept the fundraising democratic: People could donate as little or as much as they wanted and still have a hand in the monument. “I was really trying to make people feel like everybody could be part of this,” she says.
The money came quickly when Kaba threw her support behind the initiative in early April, after she was alerted to the project by Duster’s tweets. “I put out a call to my Twitter followers to say that I would put up $1,000 of my own money and was hoping to raise $10,000 in total towards the monument project over the course of a month,” Kaba says. “People were extremely generous. Within a couple of days I already knew of about $25,000 that had come in.” She also helped organize a walking tour and screening whose proceeds went toward the monument. Kaba and Hannah-Jones helped keep up the momentum by regularly tweeting about the monument and encouraging their followers to contribute.
I have some BIG, BIG news. You guys gave more than $40,000 dollars for the Ida B. Wells monument yesterday and THE MONUMENT IS NOW FULLY FUNDED. This was the last big we needed to end @MichelleDuster and her family's 10-year effort to pay for this project. I want to cry.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) July 17, 2018
Kaba and Duster both point out that Wells-Barnett has drawn more attention in recent years, which also boosted their fundraising efforts. Following the obituary, which Duster said made a “big difference,” the Times’s popular podcast The Daily dedicated an episode to her. The political climate, too, makes a figure like Wells-Barnett–who sought to fight lynching through her reporting–particularly relevant.
Just the beginning
The monument is just the beginning for Wells-Barnett’s legacy. Last week, Chicago made its first change to a street name in 50 years, renaming Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive. Duster is also trying to secure a few smaller pieces to honor Wells-Barnett and accompany the main project in Bronzeville. (She’s still accepting donations for that part of the project.) But a monument is especially meaningful when so few women, and even fewer black women, are celebrated in such a public way.
“Monuments are about memorialization and about processes of recognition, and I think both are very important when it comes to black women,” Kaba says. “I’m a black woman. I’m an organizer; I’m an educator. I’ve been doing this work for a long time. I think it’s important to understand what sacrifices people made to allow all of us to do what we do.”