Ida B. Wells finally gets a top honor with street name

Monday, February 11, 2019

Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching crusader, journalist, civil rights activist and suffragist — who could have been killed because of any one of those pursuits — has finally gotten her due.

On Monday, the street once known as Congress Parkway officially became Ida B. Wells Drive. The name change brings to fruition a piece of the dream Wells’ great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, had: that Wells’ legacy would be honored in the city she called home.

At the renaming ceremony that took place in the Winter Garden of the Harold Washington Library, Duster had to take a moment.

“I hope you don’t mind taking five seconds to just breathe in what has actually happened. I’ve had to do that several times today. I really am trying to not be overwhelmed,” she said.

Although others spoke eloquently about Wells’ accomplishments, no one was more moving than Duster, who has led a decadeslong campaign to raise money for a monument of her great-grandmother.

“Ida B. Wells had the drive and the tenacity to dedicate almost 50 years of her life fighting for African-Americans to have equal opportunities to seek life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in this country. … She had the drive and determination to speak truth to power in her quest for equal justice,” Duster told the audience.

She also pointed out that Wells traveled all over the country and abroad speaking out against racial injustice.

“Ida B. Wells lived in Chicago for the last 35 years of her life. She married, worked and raised her four children in this city, and I happen to be the fourth generation of Chicagoans, and there’s two generations after me — so we are Chicago, Duster said.

When the Chicago Housing Authority began the demolition of the Ida B. Wells homes in 2002, it essentially wiped out the only monument to the civil rights leader.

With the street renaming, Wells is now the first African-American woman to have a downtown street named after her.

The honor did not come without a fight, however.

There was pushback from the Italian-American community when it was first proposed that Balbo Drive be renamed for the civil rights leader.

Alds. Sophia King (4th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd), co-sponsors of the ordinance, came up with a compromise that was passed in July to rename Congress Parkway instead.

From left, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells and Ald. Sophia King after unveiling the Ida B. Wells Drive street sign at a ceremony at Harold Washington Library Monday. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Given the huge impact Wells had nationally and internationally (she was a founding member of several organizations, including the NAACP), it is mind-boggling that it has taken nearly 90 years for her legacy to be memorialized.

Yet at Monday’s renaming ceremony, the timing seemed perfect.

That the official celebration comes during Black History Month is especially gratifying.

Those of us who grew up in or around the sprawling Ida B. Wells public housing complex that ran from King Drive to Cottage Grove and from Pershing Road to 37th Street were aware that Wells was famous, though most of us couldn’t tell you what she was famous for.

I don’t think we even knew she was black, since black history wasn’t part of the history lessons taught in the classroom.

The lineup of speakers at Wells’ street renaming ceremony was a black history lesson in itself.

Patricia Brown Holmes, chair of Harriet’s Daughters, a group advocating for employment and wealth opportunities for African-American communities, was the youngest African-American woman to serve as an associate judge on the Circuit Court of Cook County in 1999.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton is the first black woman elected to that position.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is the first African-American and woman chosen to lead the county Democratic Party and was the first woman elected president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

And Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting in 2016, and was a Genius Grant winner in 2017.

Coincidentally, officials with the Ida B. Wells Monument project recently announced that they had met their goal of raising $300,000 for the central sculpture that will be located in Bronzeville.

Hopefully, Monday’s street renaming celebration will help build the momentum needed to complete that project.

Wells died in 1931, “but her spirit and legacy lives on,” her great-granddaughter said.

“Ida B. Wells Drive reminds everyone that regardless of where you start in life, or what their gender, race, religion or ability may be, it is possible to make their voice heard and to impact change,” Duster said.