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Street naming honors Black anti-lynching activist and journalist

By Bryan 18X Crawford | Last updated: Mar 5, 2019 - 9:41:39 PM

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(L-R): Chicago Crusader newspaper publisher Dorothy Leavell, Chaz Ebert, Michelle Duster, Sophia King, Alderman Brendan Reilly, Illinois Gov. Juliana Stratton, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, Alderman Walter Burnett. Photos: Haroon Rajaee

CHICAGO—The last time a street in Chicago was renamed for a prominent Black person in American history, the year was 1968, when South Park Way was changed to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the South Side. In a city comprised of more than 5,000 streets, not a single one outside of the “Honorary” designation, bore the name of a Black woman.

However, that all changed in July 2018 when the Chicago City Council voted to change Congress Parkway—a one-mile stretch of road leading into and out of the city’s South Loop section—to honor Ida B. Wells, the famed Black journalist who spent her life chronicling lynchings in the deep South, fighting for the right of Black women to vote, and giving Black people living on the South Side during her era, an important and iconic voice for social and political change.

As she was often fond of saying, “The people must know, before they can act,” and the renaming of a major thoroughfare in downtown Chicago will hopefully lead to a new generation of young Black people in the city to learn more about Ida B. Wells, the activist, and the first Black woman to have a major street named after her in the city.

Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells
“Ida B. Wells spent her life as an activist, and seeking to ensure that women, and Black women in particular, were not isolated from political movements, despite the racism and sexism we must often contend with, even to this day,” said Juliana Stratton, the Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, said during the February 11 street naming ceremony. On the day the name change became official, all of the GPS navigation apps and services were updated with Ida B. Wells’ name.

“She had such a strong sense of morality. She was going to tell the truth even if it came to her own detriment. Can you imagine a Black woman at that time, going into territory where a Black man or woman had literally been strung up and lynched and asking questions about why this was and what happened?” said Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist with the New York Times who was one of the many prominent speakers during the ceremony.

As an independent journalist covering lynchings in the South, Ida B. Wells set out to prove that many of the reasons given to justify the hangings, were often untrue. This is one of the reasons she fled to Chicago, after her newspaper office was burned to the ground in Memphis.

At the time of her death in 1931, Ida B. Wells could very well have been considered the most famous Black woman of her day. In addition to her journalistic endeavors, she was also one of the original founders of the NAACP and the National Association for Colored Women. However, over time, her name and accomplishments were forgotten in the annals of history. But with renewed interest in the woman and her work, her family has been able to raise some $300,000 to erect a monument in honor of their famous matriarch. In addition, to the street naming, a political fund has been set up in Ida B. Wells’ name to help promote Black women aspiring to run for political office as candidates.

But in Chicago, where Ida B. Wells lived out the remainder of her life, having a street with her name on it cements her legacy, and pays homage to a woman who boldly fought for the rights of not just Black woman, but Black people.

“Society thought it had her destiny predetermined; a life surely to be cast aside and voiceless, her name forgotten,” said Cook County Board President and Chicago mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle. “Today Chicago will forever know the name of Ida B. Wells… She held up a mirror to the face of America revealing its sins to the world all the while demanding change.”