‘The only thing she really had was the truth’
Ida B. Wells, a pioneering journalist and activist who went on to become an icon of America’s civil rights and women’s rights movements, was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize special citation Monday.
On May 4, 1884, a 22-year-old college student working as a teacher was forcibly removed from a train while en route home to Memphis.
The young woman, who’d purchased a first-class ticket, was ordered to leave the “whites only” train car. She refused, and was dragged off.
Now, 136 years to the day, that young woman, Ida B. Wells, who went on to become an icon of America’s civil rights and women’s rights movements, has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize citation.
“It’s an amazing honor. For her work to still be relevant today, so many decades after she actually did the work, is a testament to how important are the contributions she made to this country,” Wells’ great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, said of Monday’s announcement.
“The Pulitzer Prize is an extremely top honor for anyone to receive, when at the time she was living, she was considered extremely controversial and militant and difficult and called all kinds of things that weren’t nice. But she endured it all and stayed steadfast and focused on her mission — which was having the truth exposed to create change.”
Wells, who was born a slave on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and died in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at age 68 of kidney failure, was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Special Citations and Awards.
The journalist, publisher, author and suffragist joins 44 luminaries who have received the award in that category since its 1930 inception, including such pioneers as Aretha Franklin (2019), John Coltrane (2007), Duke Ellington (1999) and Alex Haley (1977).
The famed abolitionist who led a crusade against the barbaric lynching of African-Americans by racist whites across the Jim Crow South in the 1890s was honored “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching,” the Pulitzers said.
Additionally, the Pulitzer board created a bequest of some $50,000 to support Wells’ legacy, with recipients of those awards to be announced later.
“She faced a lot of danger, a lot of criticism and a lot of loss during her lifetime, in exposing the truth about the brutality and the extent of lynching,” said Duster, a Chicago native, whose own life’s work has been building on her great-grandmother’s legacy.
“She left a firsthand document behind for us to be able to read about the realities of what was going on in our country during that tumultuous period of 1870 to 1930,” she said. “Some would argue those struggles continue. But I think she created an example of how to document information in a way that is indisputable, letting the facts speak for themselves.”
She was referring to the autobiography Wells began writing in 1928, but never finished. Her daughter, Alfreda Duster, later found the manuscript, then edited and published it in 1970.
“She left a firsthand document behind for us to be able to read about the realities of what was going on in our country.”
Coincidentally, a second edition of the tome on the life of the civil rights activist who co-founded both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Association of Colored Women, will be released by University of Chicago Press on May 13 — containing a new afterword by Duster, plus a foreword by sociologist Eve Ewing.
“I’m sure the Pulitzer Prize was not on her radar while she was alive,” quipped Duster, who has spent years crusading for her great-grandmother to finally get the recognition due and denied her — particularly in cities like Chicago, where she left an indelible imprint.
“Considering the fact that she did not have the right to vote until well into her 50s, and she didn’t have any economic power, the only thing she really had was the truth,” said Duster. “She was using journalism as a form of activism, and that was her voice.”
The Chicago City Council approved the renaming of Congress Parkway between Columbus Drive and the Eisenhower Expressway, Ida B. Wells Drive, in July 2018, with an official ceremony held in February 2019. Wells, a Bronzeville resident, spent her last 35 years here.
In recent years, overdue recognition has flowed, in the form of historical markers erected for Wells in her birthplace of Holly Springs, Mississippi, as well as in Memphis, Tennessee, where she lived until her early 30s. Memphis was where Wells began reporting on racism and lynchings in the South in her own newspapers, forced to flee after her offices were burned down.
That young woman in the May 4, 1884, train incident refused to accept the status quo. She sued the railroad and won a $500 settlement in circuit court. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the case. But it was that particular travesty that sparked a lifetime battle against injustice finally recognized by the Pulitzers.
“It’s almost a coincidence all of these recognition projects are occurring around the same time,” said Duster, who has been behind all except this crowning glory received Monday.
“The main huge one is the monument Richard Hunt is currently working on,” said Duster. “It’s going to be at 37th and Langley, on the land where the Ida B. Wells home once stood. I’ve been working on that since 2008, so a lot of these have been in the works for different periods. They’re all now coming to fruition, almost 90 years after she transitioned.”