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Honoring the Life & Legacy of Ida B. Wells, Memphis’ Anti-Lynching Advocate

Article was written by Savannah Gresham.

In July of 2021, “160 years after her birth, 144 years after she first arrived in this city, 130 years after she was run out of town, and 88 years since her death,” a bronze life-size statue of Ida B. Wells was erected at the intersection of Beale and 4th Street.

The statue stands as the centerpiece of the Ida B. Wells Plaza, which honors this champion of civil rights who paid a great price to shine the light of truth upon the evil of racism and racial terror. 

Memphis civil rights hero Ida B. Wells literally risked life and limb to report on the barbaric lynchings of her friend Thomas Moss (owner of the People’s Grocery in South Memphis) and his business partners, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell. Not only did mobs set fire to her office on Beale Street for speaking out against Southern lynching, her life was threatened, and she had to flee to Chicago. She was warned that if she ever returned to Memphis, she, too, would be lynched. 

“We are here today because (Ida B. Wells) told a true story. And the truth did not want to be heard, as far as this city was concerned, but she kept telling that story.” said Elaine Turner, Director of the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, on the day of the memorial’s unveiling.

Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862—and moved to Memphis with her younger siblings after losing her parents to yellow fever in the late 1870s.

After the lynchings of Moss, Stewart, and McDowell, Ms. Wells began investigating white mob violence in the South, suspicious that Black men were being targeted and lynched by white vigilantes for the smallest of “infractions” or “missteps”—or as her investigate journalism unearthed, on the basis of nothing but coldblooded lies. 

“As Memphians we need to recognize our past and work together to create a just future,” said Terry Lynch, former chairman of Leadership Memphis, and honorary co-chair for the Ida B. Wells memorial campaign. “For some of us, telling the story of Ida B. Wells and her departure from Memphis will sting. We don’t want to remember the violence and cruelty. But we need to recognize who we have been so we can become the city—and the people—we aspire to be.”

Wells published her findings in a pamphlet as well as local newspapers and was met with rage and violence

Though the office of the newspaper Wells co-owned was destroyed, her spirit and determination were not. After she was run out of town, Wells’ influence only grew. She spoke the truth to audiences across the U.S. and England about the horrors of lynching and racial terror in the South. She was an avid activist for women’s rights, too. She made history by being the first Black woman to run for public office in the U.S. And though it lost her many supporters, she confronted white women involved in the suffrage movement who refused to acknowledge the realities of lynching and racism. Despite ferocious opposition, Wells boldly sought justice on behalf of those who were denied it, refusing to be silenced by intimidation, violence, or even threats to her life. 

Those who worked so hard to honor the life and legacy of Ms. Wells through the Ida B. Wells Plaza are themselves worthy of honor and recognition.

The Memphis Memorial Committee raised over $225,000 in funds to make the plaza a permanent reminder of Wells’ legacy, our shared history, and our shared responsibility to follow in Wells’ footsteps by speaking the truth and seeking justice, no matter the personal cost to ourselves. 

Ruby Bright, President and CEO of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, served as honorary co-chair for the Ida B. Wells memorial campaign. “It is an honor to be part of a team commemorating a legendary Black woman whose community impact is remembered in journalism, education, activism, and innumerable other avenues towards justice,” she shared.

In the words of chairperson L. LaSimba M. Gray, Jr., “Ida B. Wells left Memphis in 1892, [but] we can bring her back in 2021, and she will never have to leave again. We will bring back her honor and splendor by placing a life size statue of her on Beale Street where her career began.” 

Since the unveiling of her statue, The Memphis City Council has voted to rename Fourth Street between E.H. Crump Boulevard and Union Avenue as Ida B. Wells-Barnett Street, the first of what will be many renamed landmark areas.

This Black History Month, and throughout every month that follows, let’s express our deep gratitude to Memphis civil rights hero Ida B. Wells, and all who have worked hard to honor her legacy, by taking a sober look at both our past and our present, asking ourselves how we can actively play a part in seeking to make our city, country, and world a more just place. 

To learn more about the Memphis Memorial Committee and the Ida B. Wells memorial, visit their website and Facebook page.

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