Community members seek to reclaim Wells legacy

Almost 70 years ago, Bronzeville residents fought to name a new public housing project after Ida B. Wells, the noted civil rights leader who lived in their neighborhood. 

But years later, they say, the results of that effort do not honor Wells in the way they'd hoped. 

"The name 'Ida B. Wells,' when you mentioned it - people would forget that she was an actual woman," says Michelle Duster, Wells' great-granddaughter. "They would say, 'Oh, Ida B. Wells, the project where people get killed.'"

When Wells began to be torn down as part of the Plan for Transformation, it became clear to a group of community leaders that if they didn't do something, her name might be lost along with the buildings being demolished.

"I thought, 'Wow.' It just really hit me," says Duster. "No one's going to know who she is."

And so a group of concerned citizens got together, dedicated to creating something to honor the woman who worked so diligently for justice for Chicago citizens. The Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee is working to create a monument to honor Wells and let the community know just who she really was.

Ida B. Wells was an ardent social activist and journalist who fought for equality and justice for African Americans and women in the late 19th and early 20th century. She vigilantly campaigned against lynching and segregation and was well known for her writings on the subject, as well as her fearlessness in the face of danger.

It's that fearlessness that inspires many of the committee members to work to honor Ida. Shirley Newsome, community leader and member of the committee, says Wells was ahead of her time.

"She was not a giant in size, but she was a giant in mind and in word," says Newsome. "To have a female that has well represented her race and people and her country, she helped them to rise above some of the negative of that particular period and calling people into account for her actions."

The outcome of the project will be a statue of Wells in the center of the new Oakwood Shores development, which has replaced the Madden/Wells homes. The committee hopes to include images of Wells, along with her accomplishments and writings.

Residents of Oakwood Shores are excited both to honor Wells and to bring a little of the past with them into their new home. Sandra Young was the local advisory council president at Wells for many years until she moved into the new mixed-income community. Young hopes the artwork will serve as a bridge between old and new.

"We wanted a way to know the history of Miss Ida B. Wells, and to honor the positive things that happen in the development," says Young. "You're better when you get to know your past, present and future."

The group also wanted to see a city monument dedicated to an African American woman, something they say is not easy to find in Chicago.

"Ida B. Wells is a symbol of strong black women who have lived and carried on," says Julie Brown, lawyer at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest and member of the committee. "Especially in this community, there have been strong black women who have kept their families together in difficult circumstances."

Residents says Wells' example helped them move forward through times that were difficult, like when gangs and violence penetrated their communities.

"We marched down the street and talked about how were were not going to be afraid, how people shouldn't have to be afraid," says Leroy Square, former Wells resident. "If she could do it in a time where it wasn't thought of, we could do it here."

The committee is gathering funding and creating specific plans for the memorial. It will be constructed on the Langley Boulevard median between just south of 37th street, in the middle of Oakwood Shores. Backers are talking with noted Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt about working on the project.

The group also hopes their project inspires research into the many names connected with Chicago's public housing - names that were intended to inspire, but often came to be associated with deteriorating and violent condition.

"Everyone who had their name bestowed upon the development ends up being a negative," says Brown. "The positive kind of gets lost."

Brown highlighted Robert Taylor, the Chicago Housing Authority's first black chairman who fought against building high-rises in segregated areas,  after whom the notorious Robert Taylor Homes were named.

Frances Cabrini, the first American saint, Julia Lathrop, a social reformer and education advocate, and Henry Horner, Illinois' governor during the Great Depression, are just a few of the other historical names in CHA's portfolio.

Overall, Wells' great-grandaughter Duster says she hopes the project will inspire people to learn about the work of her ancestor. She's recently written a book, Ida: In her Own Words, highlighting Wells' writing on lynching and civil rights that she wrote and distributed during the Columbian exhibition.

It's the first in a series she is working on about Ida's many causes and writings, which she hopes will inspire a new generation to start their own crusades for justice.

"I hope they can learn about who she really was," says Duster. "I want people to know that she was a woman and not just a building."

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12, or megan [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.