Can you think of a Memphis road named for a Black woman historical figure? What about one named for any woman of historical significance? City planning officials, a local archivist and community leaders can’t either. Under a new proposal, journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett could be the first.
On Tuesday, the Memphis City Council will consider an ordinance — in the first of three approvals — that would rename Fourth Street to Ida B. Wells-Barnett Street between Union Avenue and Crump Boulevard. For the leaders pushing the change, it’s the first step in diversifying recognition in the city, especially Black women’s contributions to Memphis.
“It’s very important and significant not only for Ida B. Wells to be recognized, but Black people in general, to be recognized for the huge contributions we have made in this country,” said Michelle Duster, author and great-granddaughter of Wells-Barnett. “There need to be tributes that make that a part of the integral fabric of our society.”
John Zeanah, director of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, said after asking others in his office “…no other streets named for Black female historical figures come to mind.”
Memphis has thousands of roads, including some that only span small neighborhoods and were given their names when the communities were founded long ago. Some of those roads could be named for lesser-known Black women with ties to the neighborhood, but it’s difficult to verify, according to Zeanah, who is white.
Wayne Dowdy, senior manager of the Memphis Public Libraries’ history department, can’t find a road officially named for a Black woman or any women historical leaders.
He says there may not be a definitive way to know because streets are named by the developers and approved by the council. “I don’t think we know the reason for every name in the city,” Dowdy said. “As far as a prominent street named for a prominent person, I don’t think there’s another woman.”
Dowdy, who is white, searched the library archives for roads named after historically prominent women in Memphis. He said he could not find any for women; not for suffragists, not for political leaders, not for attorneys, not for musicians or physicians who were women, and not for businesspersons either.
“When you think about it, that isn’t much of a surprise either,” Dowdy said. “When a lot of these women became prominent in the 20th century, these streets had already been named and that (became) an excuse not to honor someone with a street name.”
Little to no representation in public spaces for the women of history in Memphis was one issue raised by the City Council Renaming Commission created by the body last year. Ida B. Wells-Barnett Street is the first of several recommended last month in the commission’s final report after a year-long evaluation. The group identified major roads and public spaces in Memphis to be renamed from racist figures to more inclusive icons.
Kenya Bradshaw, chairwoman of the commission, said street names and other honors for notable Black women are overdue. She’s not surprised a Black woman isn’t already a namesake for a major road.
“The roles and contributions of Black women have always been present in our society, but they have not always been appreciated or recognized,” said Bradshaw, who is Black.
Memphis is the latest major city to bolster representation of Black historical figures in public spaces in a national trend.
Last week, the U.S. Senate approved a bill, pushed by Memphis Rep. Steve Cohen, to remove Klansman Clifford Davis’ name from the Clifford Davis-Odell Horton Federal Building. Odell Horton was the first post-Reconstruction Black federal judge and assistant U.S. attorney in Tennessee.
After leaving Memphis, Wells-Barnett eventually moved to Chicago where she went on to do some of her most notable work. In 2018, she also became the namesake of Chicago’s first major road named for a Black woman.
There are streets named for Black men historical figures, notably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and A.W. Willis Avenue in Downtown. Willis and King were also honored with plaques on a memorial bridge and a portion of the Interstate 240/Interstate 40 loop, respectively.
There are also several honorary street names, such as one unveiled Wednesday for Young Dolph, the Memphis artist killed last month. Black women have been recognized with honorary changes, which maintain the official name and signage of the road, but add smaller signs underneath them.
Wells-Barnett crusaded against lynching and advocated equal rights for women through her writings during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After reporting on lynching in Memphis, Wells-Barnett was forced out of the city by death threats and after her Beale Street newsroom was vandalized.
She was not only one of the first American investigative journalists, she was a teacher, civil rights leader, businesswoman and a founder of the NAACP.
The section of Fourth Street that is up for renaming runs beside the statue and plaza unveiled in July to commemorate her legacy in Memphis. The Rev. LaSimba Gray, chairman of the Memphis Memorial Committee, which installed the plaza, said the street renaming is one of the finishing touches on the project. Such honors are subverting history, Gray said.
“As much as she was vilified, there was never supposed to be a statue of Ida B. Wells in Memphis. They did everything they could to destroy the images and symbols of African American leaders.”
Those images and symbols are essential, said council member Michalyn Easter-Thomas, who introduced the ordinance, which will have its first of three readings Tuesday.
“Words matter, the naming of things matters,” Easter-Thomas said. “When we named streets, parks and places over 100 years ago, whatever thought was put into it — it was for a reason. However, as Memphis is moving forward, we should be reflective of new ways of thinking and honor those who deserve it.”
Easter-Thomas, who is Black, said she is personally inspired by characteristics of Wells’ legacy, including her “strength and courage to speak on what’s needed.”
Bradshaw is anticipating future inspiration for generations of Black women to come.
“I am excited to see when the (sign) changes and for young Black girls and Black women to be able to see themselves in the recognition of our community,” she said. “I just believe that in all areas, we should have representation of the fullness of the people in our community. It will bring us together.”
Duster looks forward to growing awareness of Wells.
“The only thing I hope happens is that people will actually know who she was. It won’t just be a street name.”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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