By Caryn Rousseau
For six decades, civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells was woven into the fabric of Chicago’s South Side as the namesake of a public housing project.
A Rosa Parks-like figure during her era, the journalist and suffragist was so revered that 1930s leaders put her name on a project that promised good, affordable housing for working class families. Within a few decades, however, the homes deteriorated, growing more violent and becoming riddled with gangs and drugs — not as notorious as the city’s Cabrini-Green public housing high rises or Robert Taylor Homes, but certainly not a monument to Wells’ legacy.
Then, nearly a decade ago, the city tore the Wells housing project down, leaving the activist’s great-granddaughter Michelle Duster and her family worried Wells wouldn’t be remembered at all.
Now, to mark the 150th anniversary of Wells’ birth in 2012, an effort is under way to build a sculpture to honor her legacy at the site of the housing development and renew her relevance for future generations.
“When the housing project was coming down we were like ‘Her name is going to be gone,’” Duster said, sitting in her South Side home, a portrait of her great-grandmother hanging on the wall. “Her name and what she did can’t be lost with the housing project.”
The Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee is seeking $300,000 in donations after commissioning noted Chicago artist Richard Hunt to create the sculpture, which is expected to combine images of Wells with inscriptions of her writings. They have raised a little more than 10 percent of the money so far.
While Wells’ name endures on a grade school and a professorship in the city, the monument will aim to reflect the full legacy of a woman who was born into slavery in Mississippi and went on to become a well-respected crusader against injustice and outspoken anti-lynching activist.
Orphaned at age 16, Wells was left to support her five siblings. She became a teacher and moved to Memphis, where she sued a railroad because she wasn’t allowed to sit in the ladies coach. When she later became a journalist, Wells wrote about that incident and the lynchings of three of her male friends.
Her writings enraged others and led to Wells being forced to leave the South. She kept writing and speaking about lynching across the U.S. and England. She died in 1931 and is buried in Chicago.
Planning for the Ida B. Wells Homes started three years after her death, as a project of the Public Works Administration. The homes opened in 1941 and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the complex, with its 1,662 units — more than 860 apartments and nearly 800 row houses and garden apartments.
By the 1990s, the housing complex had fallen to drugs and violence. In an infamous 1994 case, two boys, ages 10 and 11, dropped a 5-year-old boy to his death from a vacant 14-floor apartment. The boys were convicted on juvenile murder charges. The same year two neighborhood teenagers produced an award-winning radio documentary “Ghetto Life 101,” which aired on National Public Radio.
A year later, prosecutors charged seven people with running a cocaine ring out of the Ida B. Wells Homes that authorities say did such booming business drug buyers lined up 50 at a time.
By 2002, the last buildings were torn down in a nationally watched urban renewal plan initiated by then-Mayor Richard Daley that also targeted other housing projects — including Cabrini-Green, which saw the last of its high-rises crumble under wrecking balls earlier this year.
As Wells Homes residents focused on finding new places to live, some also requested something be done in tribute to the activist.
“I want people to remember Ida B. Wells the woman, not Ida B. Wells the housing community,” her great-granddaughter, Duster, said.
“Something should be done to remember who she was. I think who she was as a woman got lost when it was attached to the housing projects.”
When the money is raised, that something will be a sculpture in the middle of a large grassy median on 37th Street and Langley Avenue in the historically African-American neighborhood of Bronzeville on the city’s South Side.
The site, across the street from a large park, isn’t far from the 19th-century stone house where Wells lived from 1919 to 1929. The Ida B. Wells-Barnett House is now a National Historic Landmark.
Hunt envisions a sculpture in his metallic, free-form style that will incorporate images and writings of Wells. He said he hopes to convey “what a courageous and intelligent and committed person that she was.”
Carol Adams, president of Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African-American History, said the sculpture will be a lasting monument to Wells and a place where people can learn about her influence. The neighborhood is already home to the Ida B. Wells Preparatory Elementary Academy, and Chicago’s DePaul University has a professorship named for Wells.
“Her name itself just reverberates through the community,” said Adams, who once worked in the Ida B. Wells Homes. “It was her voice, her stance that she took regarding lynching and how she used the media to wage that fight, what that fight meant to us. This was very significant for black people all over the country.”
Duster said the sculpture will “have a lot of meaning” for those who lived in the homes named after her.
“I think they will have a huge sense of pride,” she said. “Those who lived in Bronzeville when the homes were there, it’s a source of pride for our neighborhood. For others it’s a sense of pride in the city of Chicago.”
Mostly though, she said, remembering her great-grandmother will teach a new generation that one person can make a difference and defy the boundaries of society’s expectations based on race, class and gender.
“It’s important to speak up when you feel you’ve experienced something not fair,” Duster said. “Don’t wait for somebody else to say something. That’s one thing Ida did that I think is a legacy. She used her voice and talents to raise consciousness.”
By Caryn Rousseau