What we know about Ida B. Wells-Barnett, her work, the era she lived in, and her legacy depends on so many variables. Because most of our school history books devote little more than a sentence, if that, towards acknowledging her existence, it falls upon us to seek out her story. As luck would have it, one of Mrs. Ida’s descendants, Michelle Duster, is still around to use not only family memory but also the meticulous documentation of her great-grandmother’s revolutionary story.
The oldest child of a six sibling family, Ida was thrust into major responsibilities around age eighteen when her formerly enslaved parents succumbed to cholera leaving her to nurse her similarly stricken siblings to health and manage a household where she could keep them all together on a single salary. Though able to maintain this goal for at least a year, it became untenable and her siblings were later split among their relatives. It was the realization of a fear that Ida still carried in hearing how her parents were torn from their families while enslaved.
Perhaps it was the combination of carrying these injustices in addition to the myriad daily aggressions she had to deal with as a Black woman living in the South in the 1880s that led her to physically resist being pulled out of a first class train car while commuting to work from Memphis. However, it is very clear that this particular incident led to her quick reaction the next time a conductor tried to forcibly remove her from the train car on the same route. This time she left the car and walked directly to a lawyer who helped her make the historic case of The Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad Company vs. Ida B. Wells. The judge ruled that the company should give her a $500 pay out on the basis that the segregated car they wanted to push her into was not equal to the service her ticket yielded. Sadly, that pay out never came as the railroad appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court who later ruled in their favor, revoking the original ruling, instead naming her responsible for paying their $200 court fees.
Enraged, Ida took her feelings to the text and began writing, unpaid, for a preacher interested in getting her words out to the community. This small writing opportunity grew into her later getting paid roles until she joined two other Black editors in owning their own newspaper, Memphis Free Speech. The brutality that she witnessed during this period not only led to her renown as an investigative journalist but also set the direction for the rest of her life.
Duster’s rehashing of her great-grandmother’s life is a compilation of materials from earlier works that she published chronicling periods of Wells-Barnett’s life further enriched by reflection of the ways Wells-Barnett’s legacy lives on through the many revolutionaries who have taken on the fight against lynching and the disregard for Black life. This version of the book is formatted to be picked up by middle grade and high school-aged readers but does not hold back on being forthright about the stakes Black people who lived during the same time as Ida B. Wells-Barnett — as well as her more recent counterparts — risked to grant Black people human rights in the United States.
I found this book a good jumping off point for further exploration of what this period of history meant for Black people. In fact, this book is really good at pointing out companion pieces to check out in direct media like podcasts and PBS documentaries. Ida B. Wells-Barnett is an integral figure in the fight for Black liberation. What better way to become familiar with this actually means than by picking up this book about her far-reaching work by one of her descendants?