Civil rights activist Ida B. Wells was honored Monday morning when city and state leaders officially unveiled new street signs for Ida B. Wells Drive.
The 1.2-mile downtown street was formerly known as Congress Parkway and aldermen Sophia King (Fourth Ward) and Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) co-sponsored and passed the ordinance to rename the street in July 2018. This is the first downtown street named after an African American woman.
“She was an original boss,” King said. “She spoke truth to power and … changed the landscape of Chicago and the world.”
Wells was born into slavery in 1862 in Mississippi, but it was her pioneering work as a Memphis publisher and journalist where she first gained widespread attention. In 1891 Wells, who was also a public school teacher, began reporting on unequal conditions in black schools. Those articles got her fired from her teaching job.
A year later, in 1892, she began work on a series of articles on lynching that showed the practice, far from being a legitimate form of law enforcement, was a means of terrorizing African Americans to keep them powerless and scared. Her stories used data analysis and extensive investigative techniques that were new in journalism.
The stories so upset white Memphians, a mob burned her offices, destroyed her printing press and forced her to flee the South, though the series got national distribution in black papers. After a speaking tour in Europe, she settled in Chicago where she continued to civil rights work for African Americans and for women’s issues until her death in 1931.
“I believe this honor is long overdue,” said Reilly. “I believe it is wrong that until this day no street in downtown Chicago has ever been named for an African American woman. It’s wrong. But I can’t think of a better or more deserving individual than Ida B. Wells to right that wrong today.”
The mayor and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton also praised Wells’ legacy and Michelle Duster, a great-granddaughter of Wells, said she hopes the street is an inspiration.
“Ida B. Wells Drive will remind everyone, no matter where they start in life, that it is possible to make their voice heard,” Duster said.
Chaz Ebert, the keynote speaker for the event, said public memorials to people of color are important, especially for children of color.
“As a little girl I used to wonder, did we really matter? As a little girl I had never seen a black fireman or a black nun,” she said. “And I would wonder, did we matter?
“Buckminster Fuller, when he used to greet people who said ‘hello’ to him, he would say, ‘I see you is see you.’ Because we all have a universal need to be seen, to be heard, to be loved and to know that we matter and that the footprint we leave on this earth will be observed by someone. And that’s what’s happening this morning.”