Nearly 130 years after Ida B. Wells was forced to leave Memphis when white mobs destroyed her newspaper office, Friday’s unveiling of a statue of the investigative reporter will shine a light on a courageous civil rights figure, an organizer of the event said.
“Memphis has a chance to say we were wrong and we want to get it right. And we want to honor this (woman), even if it’s posthumously,” said L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., chairman of the Memphis Memorial Committee, which organized the effort to erect the statue in the newly named Ida B. Wells Plaza at Beale and Fourth Streets.
The bronze statue will be unveiled at 11 a.m. Friday on the 159th anniversary of Wells’ birth. It’s the culmination of a little over a year and a half of work by the committee in partnership with the Neshoba Community Resource Center, a community service nonprofit organized by Gray.
The idea for the statue came to Gray in December 2019 in a conversation with the late civil rights activist Miriam DeCosta-Willis. They agreed that “without debate, Ida B. Wells deserves to be honored” with a monument.
The committee commissioned local artist Andrea Lugar and her husband, Larry, to design and create the statue.
The committee’s work, including raising more than $260,000, continued amidst the pandemic. They needed to raise $250,000 for the project, Gray said, and money is still coming in. Some will be used to further develop the plaza; the excess will go to scholarships at Rust College, the historically Black college Wells’ father helped found and that she briefly attended.
The committee also returned a $5,000 donation from Byhalia Pipeline, which killed a proposed project in Southwest Memphis two weeks ago. Gray said he did not think Wells would have supported the crude oil pipeline through Black communities, which vigorously fought it.
‘Ring out injustice’
In a city with deep and tragic civil rights roots, Wells’ legacy is a piece of that story, said Ruby Bright, the Memorial Committee’s honorary co-chair and the president and CEO at the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis.
Who was Ida B. Wells?
An investigative reporter, civil rights activist, mother and wife, Ida B. Wells was a crusader against lynching and for the rights of Black Americans and women. She was born in Mississippi and was enslaved for the first six months of her life until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Wells moved to Memphis with her younger siblings after both her parents died of yellow fever.
After leaving teaching and becoming a full-time journalist, Wells co-owned and published a newspaper, devoting her work to documenting and exposing lynching in the South. While away from Memphis, a mob ransacked her newspaper office, destroyed her equipment and threatened her life. She decided not to return to the city, and instead moved to the North.
She also fought vigorously for the voting rights of women, especially Black women who were often sidelined or dismissed by white suffragettes. She died in 1931. In 2020, she was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize honoring “her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
How is Memphis honoring her?
On Friday, Memphis Memorial Committee, in partnership with the Neshoba Community Resource Center, will unveil a statue of Wells in a plaza named after her on Beale Street at Fourth. There will also be a replica printing press, four placards telling Wells’ story and a memorial to the three men who were lynched.
This week, the committee is also holding other events:
- Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.: a Zoom panel on her legacy with the Rev. Dr. Rosalyn Nichols, Wendi C. Thomas (editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism), and Dr. Rychetta Watkins; and moderated by Dr. Charles McKinney
- Thursday at 10 a.m.: a pilgrimage to the lynching site in the 1500 Block ofon NorthN. Second Street, then to the gravesite.
- Thursday at 6 p.m.: a minister’s workshop on “How to Stay Awake in the Midst of a Revolution” at Lindenwood Christian Church, at 2400 Union Ave.
- Friday at 9 a.m.: Before the unveiling, there will be a parade beginning at Main Street and Beale Street that will end at the plaza at Beale and Fourth Street.
- The statue will be unveiled Friday at 11:00 a.m.
“She made a significant contribution to ring out injustice … I think that there is the linkage of history that connects to the National Civil Rights Museum and the assassination of Dr. King,” she said. In doing so, it’s important to focus on the whole story, including the leadership and courage of both trailblazers, Bright said.
Wells was born into slavery on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. When she was nearly 6 months old, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. She dropped out of university at 16 to care for her younger siblings after her parents died in yellow fever outbreaks. They moved to Memphis in 1882.
Two years later, Wells successfully sued a railroad after she refused to give up her first-class ticket and sit in the car for Black passengers. The state Supreme Court later overturned the ruling.
Wells, who was a teacher, began writing about race and politics, and eventually left teaching to become a full-time journalist. After a lynch mob murdered Wells’ friend, People’s Grocery owner Tom Moss, as well as his associates Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart in 1892, she turned her attention to exposing lynching in the South. On May 27 that year, while on a trip away from Memphis, white mobs destroyed her office and equipment. After that, she permanently left the city, moving to Chicago.
She devoted the rest of her life to writing about lynching and fighting for the rights of Black people and women, particularly Black women. She was crucial to the women’s suffrage movement. When white organizers told Black marchers they could not walk together in a 1913 parade in Washington, D.C., Wells refused to march at the back.
Among many benefits, Bright sees the statue as one step toward righting an imbalance in who society memorializes, noting the dearth of statues nationally honoring women and the especially small number honoring Black women.
The statue, which Gray said is the first in the world of Wells, will not stand alone in the plaza. Joining it will be an antique printing press in honor of Wells’ investigative work, four large plates describing various eras in Wells’ life and an award recognizing her work as a “warrior,” Gray said.
There will also be a memorial to Wells’ three friends who were lynched called the “Tree of Strange Fruit,” which Gray described as a “limb made of copper rods” that leans to the north, a symbol of freedom. The men’s names will hang from the tree.
Statues of Confederate leaders continue to be taken down nationally, but Gray wouldn’t talk about the erection of Wells’ statue in that context.
“It’s meaningful,” he said. But he added, “I do not discuss Ida B. Wells in the same sentence with Confederate statue removal. There’s no comparison.”
Friday’s unveiling will follow a week of events honoring Wells and her legacy, including a Zoom panel today at 5:30 p.m. that includes MLK50: Justice Through Journalism editor and publisher Wendi Thomas, a Thursday pilgrimage to the lynching site and gravesite of the men, and a minister’s workshop that evening entitled “How to Stay Awake in the Midst of a Revolution.”
Before the unveiling, there will be a parade from Main and Beale streets to the unveiling site at Beale and Fourth streets.
When she was growing up, Bright had to seek out information about Wells to learn about her, she said.
“But to have a statue of Ida B. Wells on Beale Street – it just seemed to me a full circle come around to honor her and her legacy. She didn’t get to come back to Memphis and tell her story, and it’s one that is unfortunate and the story that she told was horrific. However, I think young people need to have the opportunity to learn about it.”
Hannah Grabenstein is a reporter for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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