EDITOR’S NOTE: Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, will kick off the NFPW Virtual Conference at noon Friday. Duster’s most recent book is Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells. APW and NFPW member Philip Martin, an award-winning journalist at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, interviewed Duster.
See the full conference agenda and register June 11-12 virtual event at www.nfpw.org/conference
Order a copy of Ida B. The Queen through WordsWorth Books.
By Philip Martin
Americans are not by nature a backward-looking people. For a lot of us, the past simply doesn’t exist.
The past is not a place you can go or a sensation you can experience. The past is as fragile as memory, and if you have no memory of an event, it simply does not exist for you.
Duster heard her great-grandmother’s name a lot when she was growing up on the South Side of Chicago. But when people referred to “Ida B. Wells,” they weren’t talking about a person. They weren’t referring to someone born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, who became one of the most famous and influential American women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were talking about the massive housing project that was named for her.
Construction began on the projects in 1939, less than a decade after Wells’ death, and they opened shortly before the U.S. entered World War II. All told there were 1,600 residence units in the complex. Nearly 800 of these units were row house or garden apartments in various two-, three- and four-story buildings arranged around a city park; the others were “spacious and well-lit” high-rise apartments along Cottage Grove Avenue. More than 18,000 families applied for residence in the Ida B. Wells Homes; the venerable Black-oriented newspaper the Chicago Defender ran a 20-page special section celebrating the opening of the project; the Chicago Herald American ran a photo essay that celebrated one family’s move “from hovel to heaven.”
In those days, public housing was seen as an engine of upward mobility. The “projects” were designed to be an incubator for a rising middle class, a way to escape from tenements and slums. Lots of people who were reared in the Ida B. Wells Homes went on to do great things.
Yet by the time Duster was growing up, the new had rubbed off the Ida B. Wells Homes. They were increasingly seen as an unfortunate place, dangerous even.
“In Chicago, whenever people would hear the name, Ida B. Wells, they would think of black dysfunction,” Duster says.
It got worse. In 1994, 5-year-old Eric Morse died after he was dangled and dropped from a vacant 14th floor apartment in the projects by two preteen boys. It was said they killed him because he refused to steal candy for them. It wasn’t long after that the federal government took over the Chicago Housing Authority.
Veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman focused on the Wells Homes in 1997, with his film “Public Housing,” which many consider to be his masterpiece.
The projects had become what they were designed to cure — a slum to be escaped.
In 2002, they started knocking down the Ida B. Wells Homes. Which was OK with Duster.
“And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, this is not who she was.’ And so when they started to be torn down, I felt very strongly that the city should replace, well honor her, in a different way,” she says. “Because she was not a building. She was not a series of buildings; she was a woman.”
Being a descendant isn’t supposed to matter that much in the United States of America. One of the driving ideas behind our founding is that “all men are created equal.” But you don’t have to scratch very hard to find the hypocrisy that underlies that statement — just start asking what they mean by “men?” Certainly not Black men, who were treated as chattel by many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence. Probably not women, either.
Michelle Duster is an author and a filmmaker.
She is a speaker, a college professor, a public historian and intellectual who advocates for racial and gender equity. Maybe most of all, she is a writer.
There have been several books on Ida B. Wells, including a valuable “autobiography,” Crusade For Justice, edited by Duster’s grandmother Alfreda M. Duster, that was first published in 1970. But maybe the best — and, for modern readers, certainly the most accessible — place to start is Michelle Duster’s Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells, which was published in January by the Simon & Schuster imprint Atria/One Signal Publishers.
Wells, who was honored with a special Pulitzer Prize citation in 2020, was a journalist who covered lynchings (she visited Little Rock in early 1922 to interview Black men and boys incarcerated after the Elaine Massacre), was an early civil rights and women’s suffrage advocate (even as she was ignored and diminished by white leaders of the movement). She helped found the NAACP, challenged the segregationist Woodrow Wilson in the White House, and made speeches decrying America’s failure to live up to the ideals expressed in its founding documents.
In her book, she also talks about growing up in a family that valued achievement and was proud of her great-grandmother’s work, but not excessively so.
“She wasn’t presented as this icon who stood above everybody else,” Duster says. “Because we were always taught that everybody is important. Everybody’s contribution to our society is important. And so it wasn’t like she was revered and everybody else was ignored. Looking back on that, I think that was a very healthy approach, because … it was presented to me like, that was her job, that was her profession. And everybody else has professions.
“So I knew I was related to her. But I come from a fairly large family… she was one of dozens of relatives that I have.”
And Duster, like most kids will, just took her own experience for granted.
“My grandmother [Alfreda] was to me … she was a grandmother, versus being like some lecturer who was constantly grilling me about 19th century history,” she says.
Duster always knew she was related to the woman with her name on the projects, but that didn’t occupy a lot of her time growing up.
“Outside of our family, maybe people were in awe,” she says. “Inside our family it was like ‘OK, yes, your grandmother was Ida and what are you doing in school?’”
Duster’s parents emphasized education, though not so much raw achievement.
“There was a lot of emphasis on being our personal best — there wasn’t a lot of pressure to be the best,” she says. “It was just to be your best. So that was always the question. Like, whenever you got whatever grades you got, it was ‘Was that the best you can do?’”
Duster says she never felt any pressure — internal or external — to follow in anyone’s footsteps.
“My mother was an English teacher. I think she noticed I had a talent. She encouraged me to express myself and use my talent…. It wasn’t like, ‘You’re going to be like your great-grandmother.’ It was like, ‘This kid can write, this kid has a good imagination, and she can express herself. So let’s cultivate that.’
“I was also really kind of artsy. I was really good at photography. I was very craft-oriented. I was always been making things and making collages.”
She did the usual high school activities. She entered essay contests. She was on the school newspaper and yearbook staff. Then she went to Dartmouth [and earned] a Bachelor of Arts in psychology; then she got a Master’s of Arts in media studies at New York’s the New School. She found herself interested in history and in journalism.
“I knew that if I decided to be a journalist [the comparisons to Wells] would be never-ending,” she says. “It would be ‘Oh, you want to be like your great-grandmother.’ And I felt like I would never be able to live up to her accomplishments. So I was very deliberate about trying to not follow in her footsteps. So in college I actually joined the radio station. I was still interested in media and stories, but I’m like, I’m not gonna do journalism. I’ll do broadcast. I was a DJ on the radio for a few years.
“And then when I graduated from college, I was still interested in writing, and I like images and stories. So my first job was as a copywriter .… What I was interested in doing was creating positive images about Black people. That was what I was interested in doing because, based on different experiences and what I noticed, to my frustration, was there is a lack of what I consider to be positive images. Because what I’d seen on television didn’t reflect my reality.”
Instead of complaining about it, Duster began to work. She wanted to make an impact.
She went to film school, because she wanted to learn how to produce images. She worked with the legendary filmmaker William B. Greaves on his 1989 documentary Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice.
While working on that film, she went to Memphis.
“As a third-generation Chicagoan, I never saw a Confederate flag until I went down,” she says. “Just seeing that symbol kind of freaked me out. When I went to Mississippi for the first time, we drove, and when we crossed the state line and saw ‘Welcome to the Magnolia state,’ I literally like had to make sure I didn’t hyperventilate. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going into this place where so much violence has happened.’ You have these pickup trucks with the Confederate flag, and I was like freaking out.”
But when she arrived in Holly Springs and saw how many Black people there were, she felt a different kind of energy.
“And suddenly, I was in the spaces where she lived her life,” she says. “Where certain pivotal things happened that changed her life. And so that had an impact, and it made it more real, you know, being in that physical space. And, … I was still doing my own career, but I … had actually moved to New York, and I was working, still kind of in culture, like cultural institutions and working to highlight the positive aspects of black culture, black people. That’s the common thread of what I was doing, even though I did different jobs. But, after a while, what sort of sparked my interest in making sure that my great-grandmother’s work continued.”
“One thing I’ve learned in doing all of these projects [about Ida] is that people tend to be remembered because of advocacy,” she says. “It’s not a given somebody will be remembered and celebrated, it takes a lot of work to make sure that person and their work is remembered …. I could talk for a long time about that. I won’t, but I mean, it’s just very complex. To get some of these projects done, that I’ve been involved in — most people have no clue what is involved. They’re just like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a street named after Ida B. Wells. Wow!’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, and you have no idea what it took to get that.’’
Duster has been working for the past 13 years with a committee to erect a monument to Wells on or near the site of the old Ida B. Wells Homes.
“There’s going to be a dedication ceremony at the end of June,” she says. “I’ve never worked on a project as long before my life. It’s crazy. A human being could have been born when we started this project. The kid would be entering high school now …. It’s been eye-opening, and I’m sure every project is different. I’m sure every project is unique. But I get the impression this particular project had a lot more layers of complexity when it came to social issues. And social justice dynamics. I don’t want to get into all the things about the monument, but it was very interesting. Just trying to walk through these minefield of differing sort of camps. On what should be done and where.”
She thinks she might write about that experience someday, too. Maybe it will make a good comic novel. Maybe something more straightforward.
Anything to collect and contain — to arrest the evaporating past.