Chicago officially has a downtown street named after a black woman.
Street signs for Ida B. Wells Drive, formerly Congress Parkway, were unveiled Monday in front of the many supporters and public officials gathered at Harold Washington Library’s Winter Garden.
City alderman voted to rename Congress Parkway after the activist and journalist in June 2018. Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward) noted it was the first official street name change since South Parkway was renamed Martin Luther King Drive in 1968. King and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) helped champion the effort in City Hall.
“It’s actually bittersweet that it’s taken so long, but we are here,” King said. “She truly was an original boss: spoke truth to power, and walked through fear into justice, and changed the landscape of Chicago and the world.”
Wells was a suffragist, journalist, and civil rights activist, who — among many things — did the dangerous work of reporting on lynchings to show their prevalence around the U.S.
“Being a black woman writing such things at that time, she was run out of Memphis, her newspaper was burned down, her pressed destroyed,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times journalist and cofounder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. “Which was a common tactic of white supremacists at that time because they understood, just as Ida B. Wells did, that the people must know before they can act — there was no educator like the press.”
Wells lived in Chicago the last three decades of her life, where generations of her family still lives. Wells’ great-granddaughter Michelle Duster, who successfully galvanized organizations and supporters in an effort to build a South Side monument honoring Wells, asked the audience to pause and breathe in the moment.
“My family grew up knowing about the hard work and sacrifice and legacy of our foremother, Ida B. Wells, and the commitment she had to fighting for equal rights for African-Americans and women,” Duster said “And, we also knew that her life was not easy.”
Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, who is the first African-American to serve in her position, told stories of Wells’ courage and service.
“(Wells) was not just inspiration to me as a black woman in politics,” Stratton said. “But one who endured so much so that we could stand here today in service to our communities.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel explained that “this is more than a street sign.”
“It’s a powerful reminder for us to stand up to any injustice and to fight (for) the ideals of equality, dignity, and humanity,” Emanuel said. “Most history books do not recognize (Wells’) courage or her contributions, but here in Chicago … this monument of Ida B. Wells will stand the test of time.”
Arionne Nettles is a digital producer at WBEZ covering arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @arionnenettles.