In Ida B. Wells’ name, anti-racism groups to protest Confederate monument

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Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells, holding a portrait of Wells at her home on Chicago’s South Side. She is pushing for a monument honoring the African-American abolitionist and suffragist to be built. | AP

Ida B. Wells-Barnett is getting a ton of overdue recognition these days.

The famous journalist and anti-lynching crusader was among the influential women given a belated obituary last month by The New York Times as part of its “Overlooked” series of stories.

On April 12, former first lady and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was the keynote speaker at the “Ida B. Wells Legacy Committee” fundraising luncheon.

That organization is a political action committee founded by political consultant Delmarie Cobb to develop the next generation of progressive African-American women candidates.

Wells spent half of her life on the city’s South Side. Her great-granddaughter Michelle Duster lives in Chicago and is pressing to build a proper monument for the legendary African-American abolitionist and suffragist.

Operating under the banner of “The Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee,” the group commissioned famed sculpture Richard Hunt to create the sculpture.

Recently, it got a big boost when educator and organizer Mariame Kaba used her social media platform to raise more than $20,000 for the effort.

But about $180,000 more is still needed.

Separately, the civil rights activist’s name has been tied to efforts by a coalition of modern-day civil rights activists to remove a Confederate monument from Oak Woods Cemetery in the South Side Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood.

On Sunday, Smash White Supremacy Chicago, along with several other activist groups, plans to be at Oak Woods Cemetery at 10 a.m. — when a group that calls itself Sons of the Confederacy will hold its annual memorial service paying homage to the 4,000 Confederate prisoner-of-war veterans who are buried there.

At a rally organized by white nationalists last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park, one person was killed when a vehicle rammed into counter-protesters, and two state troopers died in a helicopter crash.

“Our intention is not to speak to these people at all and not to interact,” says Savannah White, a spokesman for Smash White Supremacy Chicago. “We are not there to have a conversation with the Sons of the Confederacy. We are out there to uplift the story and work of Ida B. Wells.”

Duster has mixed feelings about her great-grandmother’s gravesite being used to make a political statement.

“It is not anything that the family of Ida B. Wells requested or is involved in,” she told me. “These people from Smash have not had any contact with anybody on the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee about what they are doing at the cemetery. And we feel we are interested in building up a monument to honor Ida without necessarily being involved with tearing something down.”

Activists canvassed about 400 homes in the Grand Crossing area and found that about half of the people living there didn’t know the Confederate monument existed, according to White.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the cemetery was forced to integrate, that African-Americans were buried in Oak Woods.

Since then, many prominent blacks, including the late Mayor Harold Washington, have been laid to rest at the South Side cemetery.

“Everyone we spoke to wanted the monument to be removed,” says White. “It is almost 30 feet tall and is very threatening and looming. You can see it from Emmett Till Road” — 71st Street.

The coalition organizing the counter-memorial says it includes the groups Anakbayan Chicago, Black Lives Matter Chicago, Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Trans Liberation Collective and Workers World Party Chicago.

“We are demanding that the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the federal government uses on statue upkeep annually be reallocated to the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee,” a written statement from the group says. “These funds will be used for the creation of a monumental artwork honoring the life, work and words of Ida B. Wells to be located in Bronzeville, the Chicago neighborhood where she once lived, worked and raised her family.”

Duster’s concern has been that Wells-Barnett’s contributions would be forgotten after the sprawling CHA public housing development named for her was torn down.

With renewed interest in Wells’ life come new concerns about how best to honor her legacy.

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