Whenever I play the piano, I do so under the watchful gaze of the great civil-rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. A beautiful bronze bust of her sits atop my old spinet. I may play terribly, but she lends me courage in all endeavors.
Born into slavery in 1862, Wells-Barnett attended what is today Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The college was founded in 1866 by members of the Freedmen’s Aid Society, who came south after the Civil War to set up schools where it had so recently been against the law to teach slaves how to read and write. Many had feared that literacy among slaves would “excite dissatisfaction” (as North Carolina’s law expressed it) and lead to rebellion; indeed, Mississippi’s antebellum law against educating slaves required that freed blacks leave the state altogether.
This fear metastasized after Emancipation. Northern missionaries and reformers flocked to Southern states to establish primary and secondary schools as well as the institutions now referred to as “historically black colleges and universities,” or HBCUs. But white resentment of black empowerment ran deep and strong in the South, culminating in the emergence of terror organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The repressive backlash of the post-Reconstruction era would be formalized as Jim Crow.
It was during this period that Wells-Barnett came of age. As literacy spread among the former slaves, black journalism flourished across the nation. Wells-Barnett co-owned and edited the newspaper Memphis Free Speech. She urged universal suffrage, including for black men and women. Among other things, she refused to leave a first-class carriage from which a conductor tried to expel her, and filed an early lawsuit challenging whites-only railroad cars. And she launched what would become a lifelong crusade against lynching.
The latter is undoubtedly what she is best remembered for today: Wells-Barnett traveled across the South delivering searing investigative reports on the extrajudicial spectacles of hangings, burnings, and dismemberment. After three of her friends were lynched in 1892 for daring to open a grocery store that competed with a white business, she urged African Americans to pack up and leave Memphis. So many hundreds followed her counsel—among them my grandmother and her sisters—that civic leaders tried to persuade her to retract that advice because of the drain on manual and domestic labor. When she refused, a mob burned down the offices of her paper and vowed to kill her. She fled to Chicago and continued to write.
It is in recognition of this determined advocacy that the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, has dedicated a space to her. The memorial is an evocatively beautiful structure composed of hundreds of suspended stelae, symbolic tribute to the thousands of men and women whose murders by lynching were meant to frighten African Americans into silence and submission. Its existence is largely due to the efforts of the extraordinary lawyer Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization dedicated to challenging racial and economic injustice.
While nursing this project to fruition, Stevenson and the EJI began a campaign to label buildings that were once slave warehouses, put up signs where slave auctions took place, and make sacred the places where lynchings occurred. These markers are intended to remind and give pause, to stimulate contemplation of what has been suppressed and denied. They are designed to do the same emotional work as the artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones“—small cubes inscribed with individual names, placed in the sidewalks of European cities to mark the last place where victims of Nazi extermination had lived.
Much of the coverage of the memorial’s April 26 opening focused on poignant interviews with the descendants of lynching victims. But there are at least three more topics that must be foregrounded to honor all that this project intends to evoke: first, the equally urgent, equally unsettling encounter that must be had with the descendants of perpetrators. Murderers wreak not just public forms of terror, but intergenerational havoc in intimate and domestic spheres as well; their victims include their own children, who were taught that unjust death was just life.
Second, we mustn’t forget that this memorial recognizes the diversity of the victims of lynching—which, while directed mainly against black men, spared few who defied white supremacy, including women, Jews, and those deemed foreigners.
Third, we need to erect additional monuments to the legacy of slavery. The symbolic accumulation of things and people we commemorate speaks for itself: Of 152 national monuments, only three are dedicated to women; of 30 national memorials, not a single one is. That’s why it was so good to see Wells-Barnett honored at the national memorial in Montgomery. But perhaps that should inspire us to even greater ambition: Let’s remember that, in addition to being a courageous journalist and a Rosa Parks before her time, Wells-Barnett was also a schoolteacher, a businesswoman, a political candidate, a statistician, a sociologist, a wife and mother of six, an opponent of anti-miscegenation laws, and a feminist who fought for the right of women to vote (while refusing requests that she and other black women march at the back of suffragist demonstrations).
In short, Ida B. Wells-Barnett deserves a far bigger statue than the one on my piano. Luckily, there’s a movement to build her a proper monument of her own in Bronzeville, on the South Side of Chicago, where she spent the latter years of her life. It will cost $300,000, only a third of which has been raised; if you wish to contribute, you may do so at idabwellsmonument.org. Also, her descendants have set up a foundation to provide scholarships for needy students attending Rust College; contributions may be made at ibwfoundation.org.