EDITORIAL: Chicago, build a memorial to Ida B. Wells, but not at Balbo’s expense

SHARE EDITORIAL: Chicago, build a memorial to Ida B. Wells, but not at Balbo’s expense

A group wants to raise $300,000 to commission and erect a statue of Ida B. Wells, the civil rights activist and anti-lynching crusader who spent much of her life in Chicago. | Sun-Times Library

Chicago has the Jane Byrne Interchange, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep and Maggie Daley Park.

Not to mention a colorful mural gracing a wall of the Cultural Center, honoring 20 women for their contributions to arts and culture in the city.

But what about Ida B. Wells?

The African-American civil rights activist and journalist, whose dogged reporting exposed the horrors of lynching to a nation that too often preferred to look away, is still waiting for the city’s accolades.


Wells lived much of her life in Bronzeville. A South Side public housing project in that community was named after her. But the Ida B. Wells Homes are gone, and Wells deserves to have her legacy resurrected with a permanent, and frankly more fitting, tribute.

Two aldermen, Sophia King and Brendan Reilly, introduced an ordinance last week to rename Balbo Drive, which takes its name from World War II aviator Italo Balbo, for Wells.

But renaming Balbo Drive is the wrong move. Why risk pitting Italian-Americans against African-Americans in a divisive, distracting game of “Whose street is this?”

There’s no need to squabble over street names here. Not when there’s a better way to remember Wells, by building a major monument in her honor.

It’s about time, anyway, for the city to add a woman to its collection of commemorative busts and statues.

Wells’ descendants have been working for almost a decade to raise the $300,000 needed to build a memorial. Plans are to place it on a plaza on Langley Boulevard just south of 37th Street in Oakwood Shores, the mixed-income development that replaced the Ida B. Wells homes.

Acclaimed sculptor Richard Hunt, who has created numerous public art projects around town, designed the memorial that, once complete, would become part of the city’s public art collection.

So far, the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee is about halfway to its goal. If you value the contributions of women and African-Americans to our city, make a contribution at www.idabwellsmonument.org

Want to know a bit more about Wells? 

Born in Mississippi in 1862, Wells was just 16 when her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic and she took responsibility for raising her younger siblings. She moved to Memphis when a relative offered to help her find a teaching job there.

Wells wasn’t afraid to confront segregation head-on, even as a young black woman trying to make her way in life in the Jim Crow South.

That’s evident from a story that her daughter, Alfreda Duster, told Studs Terkel in a 1971 interview. On a train trip from Memphis to another small town, Wells refused to leave the first-class train car in which blacks weren’t supposed to ride.

After all, she’d bought a first-class ticket. So why should she move?

The train’s conductor thought otherwise, and with two other men, grabbed the young woman and dragged her off to the smoking car, Duster said. The whites in the car “got a good view and continued applauding the conductor for his brave stand,” Wells wrote in her autobiography.

Like all good journalists, Wells asked questions and went out to find the real story. She didn’t accept white southerners’ claims that black men were being lynched for raping white women. Many of the victims, she learned in interviews conducted across the South, were “guilty” of nothing more than stepping outside the boundaries of segregation.

She published stories to that effect in the small Memphis newspaper she edited. Other newspapers railed against her. The newspaper’s offices and printing press were ransacked. Wells’ life was threatened.

“The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern whites. But we have had enough of it.” the Daily Commercial wrote.

So Wells fled to Chicago. She kept writing and speaking out against lynching and for civil rights. She helped to elect the city’s first black alderman, Oscar DePriest. She worked with Susan B. Anthony on behalf of women’s suffrage, and with Jane Addams against segregation in public schools. She had a modern marriage, with her husband caring for their children while she worked and traveled.

Wells died in 1931.

Last month, Montgomery, Alabama opened a memorial to lynching victims.

The woman who told many of those victims’ stories deserves a memorial in Chicago as well.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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