Writer and producer Stacy Robinson’s documentary “Ida B. Wells: A Chicago Stories Special” offers an enlightening and engrossing hour witnessing Chicago’s hometown hero and “ultimate agitator,” coming to WTTW on May 21.
Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi six months before emancipation into an education-loving and political activist family. She landed in Memphis at age 16 as a teacher, then started writing for The Free Speech and Headlight publication in a “plain, commonsense way.” She had found her calling as a journalist, first writing to highlight inequalities between Black and white schools. Wells also won a lawsuit against the Chesapeake Railroad for unlawful removal, half a century before Rosa Parks, the first of many trailblazing civil rights actions that would define her life.
The film features an array of historians, archival footage, local actors in area locations recreating scenes from her life, along with interviews with her great grandchildren Michelle Duster and Dan Duster remembering their groundbreaking grandmother. They recall Wells’ good friend Thomas Moss being lynched for running the People’s Grocery, which competed with the area’s white grocer. Wells became the most prominent and vocal anti-lynching activist in the country, and her scathing editorials were full of “simmering rage” about the ubiquitous racial terrorism practice. A white mob destroyed the Free Speech office so she left Memphis at age 30.
Wells embarked on a world tour to cultivate anti-lynching allies abroad, then attended the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She was shocked that the stories of African-American progress—Blacks being elected to office, becoming doctors and opening businesses post-slavery—were not being told. Instead, people of color at the expo were presented as stereotypes: mammies, savages and sideshow acts.
Her friend Frederick Douglass was invited by the Haitian government, not his own US leadership, to participate in its Expo pavilion. There, Wells funded, co-wrote and distributed the 90-page, multi-lingual handout called “The Reason Why The Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition: The Afro-American’s Contribution to Columbian Literature.”
In 1895, she married older widower Ferdinand Barnett, and took over running his Conservator newspaper while she continued to lecture nationally. She chronicled and supported the African-Americans living in Chicago’s “Black Belt,” a narrow but long strip of State Street, the “Black Metropolis” of businesses, churches and social organizations. “The Stroll” on the southern end of State offered restaurants, juke joints and gambling. When she noted that the only public social space to welcome Blacks was the saloon, she co-created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which didn’t offer her a leadership role because she was a woman.
Wells encouraged Southerners to move north, while she created the League of Colored Women to advocate for self-education, plus kindergartens, libraries, and eventually voting rights for women. White suffragists banned Blacks from participating in their 1913 March on Washington, saying that their presence would deter Southern women from participating. Wells showed up at the parade anyway to lead the Illinois delegation.
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones is another featured interviewee throughout the documentary. Her seminal collection “The 1619 Project” picks up where Wells left off to accurately record and amplify America’s racist history. Hannah-Jones is being censured just as Wells was, being denied tenure at the University of North Carolina just this week by those caving to conservative backlash for her work.
Hannah-Jones was awarded her Pulitzer Prize the same day that Wells received hers posthumously. The former calls the latter her “spiritual grandmother,” and another interviewee notes that Black women’s success “always comes with a cost.” As this documentary aptly notes, Black women put in the work for their communities, and rarely reap any rewards. So the work continues.
The Ida B. Wells documentary runs one hour. You can see it tomorrow, May 21, at 8pm on all WTTW platforms. Also see the companion website.
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