Through a parade down Beale Street, remarks from politicians and a rousing sermon, the statue of Ida B. Wells stood Friday in the plaza newly named for her, shrouded in a sparkling gold cloth and waiting to be revealed.
Finally, it was time for the unveiling. Three of her great-grandchildren grabbed hold of the cloth and pulled as L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., who chaired the effort to erect the statue, stood by.
The cloth fell, and there stood the crusading journalist and civil rights figure, dressed in her standard long skirt and high bun that she wore near the turn of the 20th century.
“We present you Miss Ida B. Wells! Back on Beale Street, never to leave again,” said Gray.
With the unveiling on the 159th anniversary of her birth, Wells joins the small club of Black women nationally honored with public statues. A much-cited statistic from a 2011 Washington Post article (compiled from a Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog) suggests that about 8% of public outdoor statues are of women; even fewer are of Black women.
The statistic might be a decade old, but not much has changed in the past 10 years, said Wells’ great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster. Duster works on projects dedicated to combating the erasure of women, and specifically women of color, in public spaces, which she called “a shame.”
Wells’ statue has been in the works since Gray envisioned it in 2019. Over the past year and half, the Memphis Memorial Committee, chaired by Gray, has raised more than $260,000, at least $10,000 more than needed to develop the plaza. After the development is complete, excess funds will go to scholarships at Rust College, the historically Black college Wells’ father helped found and that she briefly attended.
In recent years, there’s been a push for gender and racial parity in public statuary. In New York City’s Central Park, statues of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were unveiled last summer on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment.
They followed Chicago’s 2018 installation of a statue of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first Black woman to be a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. For 13 years, Duster has been working on erecting a monument of Wells in Chicago, which was finally unveiled at the end of June. The monument is an abstract work of art on the former site of a housing project that was named after Wells, according to the Associated Press.
The pandemic postponed a monument in the Brooklyn borough of New York City of the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. And since 1974, civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune has stood watch over Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., a dozen blocks east of the Capitol.
Relentless fighter for justice
Wells was born into slavery on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation. She moved with her family to Memphis in 1882 after her parents died in yellow fever outbreaks.
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, and she was crucial to the women’s suffrage movement. She died in 1931. In 2020, she was posthumously 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.”
The mood Friday was celebratory. An initial crowd of a couple hundred people thinned out as the program went on, but more than a hundred remained – through alternating light rain showers and intense, midday sun – for the early afternoon unveiling. During the program, vocalist Cequita Monique sang “Strange Fruit,” accompanied by Ekpe Abioto on saxophone, Rychetta Watkins recited a spoken word performance of Wells’ bio titled “Ida. B Wells Speaks,” and Rev. Alvin O’Neal Jackson, executive director of the Mass Assembly of the Poor People’s Campaign, gave the keynote address.
Awards in Wells’ name were also presented. Recipients included Duster, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and former Buffalo police officer Cariol Horne, who was fired in 2006 after she said she stopped a white police officer from using a chokehold on a Black man.
Local artists and bronze workers Andrea and Larry Lugar designed and created the statue. The plaza also now holds four structures representing different eras in Wells’ life. Under the one for journalism and activism is a replica printing press. And nearby, a sculpture of a tree limb made of twisted copper bears the names of Moss, McDowell and Stewart and bends north, symbolizing freedom. A plaque underneath the sculpture, called “The Tree of Strange Fruit,” notes thousands of lynchings of Black people between 1889 and 1931.
For Duster, the statue in Memphis is “extremely meaningful” since it was in this city that Wells started her journalism and activism work.
“She was part of a community here in Memphis that shaped her, obviously,” Duster said. “And so for this city to finally, 130 years after it ran her out, to recognize and celebrate her, especially at this grand of a scale, it’s really just – this is incredible.”
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