African Americans have been an integral and influential part of Chicago from its very inception, when a Black man from Haiti named Jean Baptiste Point DuSable founded the “Windy City” in the 1770s. There is a long list of Black residents who have made a national and international impact over the past two and half centuries, with the most recent being Barack and Michelle Obama. This precedent of leadership was set by many, including journalist, suffragist and civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells.
Despite the incredible talent and contributions of African Americans, decades of restricted covenants and redlining relegated the great majority of Black people in Chicago to certain neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides. Today, the city remains one of the most segregated in the nation. As a result of this racial concentration, a rich culture of Black business, art, education, and activism thrived in specific predominately Black neighborhoods.
The majority of Chicago’s population today is non-white. Thirty-three percent are African American, yet most of the city’s thousands of streets are named after white men and several major downtown streets are named after presidents – Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Washington, Van Buren, and Adams, the only president in this list who wasn’t a slaveholder. Only a handful of streets outside of the central part of the city are named after African Americans; these include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, renamed in 1968, and a short street near O’Hare Airport named after aviator Bessie Coleman. The over-representation of white men, and the extreme under-representation of women and people of color, does not fairly reflect the city or country.
Within the past few years, Alderman Sophia King and dozens of local organizations, led by the League of Women Voters of Chicago (LWV), have worked to change that. Alderman Brendan Reilly supported the effort and the LWV galvanized over 50 organizations to create petitions and letters. They also met with other political leaders and the family of Ida B. Wells. Their efforts made history with the first downtown Chicago street named for an African American woman.
King and Reilly originally proposed that Balbo Street be changed to honor Wells. The street is named for Italian aviator Italo Balbo, who flew a plane from Italy to Chicago in 1933 and was also associated with Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. Several members of the Italian American community strongly opposed the idea of Balbo Street being changed, and the controversy began to overshadow the goal of honoring Ida B. Wells. Aldermen King and Reilly eventually suggested that nearby busy Congress Parkway be renamed instead.
The pioneering Ida B. Wells was born enslaved in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi and ended up being one of the most well-known and influential women of her time. She originally came to Chicago in 1893 at the request of civil rights leader and orator Frederick Douglass, who asked her to help work on a pamphlet to protest the exclusion of meaningful participation of African Americans in the World’s Columbian Exposition. Wells raised the money to produce the pamphlet and contributed pieces, along with Douglass, attorney and newspaper owner Ferdinand L. Barnett, and journalist and educator Irvine Garland Penn.
While working on the pamphlet, Barnett and Wells struck up a romance and wed on June 27, 1895 at Bethel A.M.E. Church. The two prominent leaders lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side, where they raised four children together. Wells lived in Chicago for 35 years, yet for decades after she died the only city tribute to her was a public housing community that was demolished in 2002. Over the past 125 years, five generations of her descendants have grown up and several currently live in the city.
The ceremony to unveil the street signs took place at the Harold Washington Library (named after the first Black mayor of the city) which sits on the newly named street. Ida B. Wells is known as a pioneer in investigative journalism, and she uncovered and documented in great detail the facts of lynching. She also founded several civil rights organizations including the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). She later became involved with the suffrage movement and founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, which is credited with being the first all–African American club.
The legacy of Ida B. Wells’s fight for women’s suffrage was omnipresent in the extensive representation of African American women in political leadership positions at the renaming ceremony. The lineup of speakers included Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County board president and a candidate for mayor, Alderman Sophia King, and Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton. Numerous other Black female politicians were also in attendance, including Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.
Ida B. Wells died in 1931, and within two or three generations, African American women obtained the ability to vote, headlined major Hollywood films, walked through front doors of any business, stayed in any hotel, and drank out of any water fountain. Now, African American women even run for president. Her lifelong fight for equality was not in vain. For the family of Ida B. Wells, the leaders of Chicago, and the citizens of this country, this honor is finally here.
Ida B. Wells Drive will be more than just a street name in Chicago; like its namesake, Ida B. Wells Drive will impact history. Ida B. Wells Drive is a street named after a woman who was born enslaved that runs parallel to streets named after presidents who enslaved people. For generations to come, it will be a source of pride to all women and girls who hear her name, learn about Wells’ life, and realize that they too can make a difference in this world.
Ida B. Wells Drive will also instruct men and boys that people of all genders can be powerful and historic. The street will be a constant reminder of individual potential, and the collective power of raised voices for justice and equality. Ida B. Wells Drive signals that we can all make a difference in our local communities, country, or world. This is a fitting tribute to an inspiring educator, journalist, suffragist, civil rights activist, and community organizer who paved the way for African Americans and women. My great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells, made history during her time, and as we cruise down Ida B. Wells Drive we can be inspired to make an impact during our time.
About the Author
Michelle Duster is an award-winning author, speaker, and educator. Her professional background includes two decades of writing in advertising and marketing communications, event planning and concert promotion. Since 2008 she has written, edited and contributed to nine books and dozens of articles. In addition, she is active with several committees and boards to develop city, state, and national projects that focus on African American’s and women’s contribution to history. She is is the great-granddaughter of civil rights icon Ida B. Wells.