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Ida B. Wells lives here and now in great-granddaughter’s book

In an effort to expand on Ida B. Wells’ remarkable story, her great-granddaughter, writer Michelle Duster, has penned a new book, “Ida B. The Queen.” 

The poignant biography, released January 26, pays tribute to the trailblazing journalist and activist while also connecting her legacy to present-day social justice movements. From exposing the horrors of lynching in Memphis to co-founding civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, Wells worked at the forefront of social justice until her death.

In an interview with The New Tri-State Defender, Duster spoke about the inspiration behind Wells’ quest for justice, what she hopes readers take away from “Ida B. The Queen,” and how she feels about Memphis – the city her great-grandmother, who was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, called home for more than 15 years.

TSD: Thank you for speaking with us, Michelle. There are books written about your great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells, including her posthumous autobiography. What can readers get from this book that may differ from the others that have been written?

Michelle Duster: What I hope people get from “Ida B. The Queen” is the connection between the past and the present. I want people to understand that Ida was part of a continuum of Black resistance that, in my opinion, started in 1619 and still continues on today. The work that she did was influenced by the people that came before her. And the work that’s being done now is influenced by her and her generation.

TSD: Speaking of such, we just witnessed a pivotal moment in history as Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice President of the United States, making her the first woman and woman of color to hold the position. As you think of your great-grandmother and her fight for racial equality and women’s rights, what was it like to witness history being made during the recent Inauguration?

MD: It was such a significant day. It made me think of all of the women, including my great-grandmother, who have fought so long to see this day. It was a touching day for me, to say the least.

Michelle Duster holding a portrait of her great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast via theconversation.com)

TSD: What do you think inspired Ida’s quest for justice, especially during a time when Bpeople were being brutally killed for speaking out?

MD: I can gather that Ida got a sense of what was right and wrong. She became of age during the Reconstruction Era to parents who were pretty progressive. From that, I think she got a sense of possibility; and noticed that there was a sort of pushback towards Black progress. The fight was personal for her. She’d lost her parents, who were very civically engaged before they passed. And she was also very close with Thomas Moss, the businessman who was lynched by a mob of white men. 

TSD: Thomas Moss was the owner of a grocery store in Memphis when he was lynched in 1892. This prompted Ida’s anti-lynching crusade. How do you think her time in Memphis impacted her journey?

MD: She was shaped greatly by the experiences she had in Memphis. It’s a big part of her story. It’s where she co-founded the newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech, and was able to expose the brutal lynchings of her friends and other black men; but it’s also the place that she had to leave because of death threats.  

TSD: So, when you hear that local organizers are working to get a statue erected in her honor in Downtown Memphis, how does that make you feel?

MD: It’s nice that the city is recognizing her, and realizing that what happened in Memphis was unfortunate and a sign of the times; but I’m happy about it. I think it’s long overdue and well deserved.

Ida B. Wells statue to soon watch over her cherished Beale Street

TSD: Ida’s story is one of struggle. Not just for the fight against racial inequality but sexism as well. Even as she fought for women’s rights, she and other Black women experienced discrimination in the women’s suffrage movement. How did she navigate that?

MD: One of the things I mention in “Ida B the Queen” is how Ida founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Illinois. It was the first all-Black suffrage club in Illinois. To me, the way she navigated racial discrimination was to create her own. She did the same thing when it came to the Negro Fellowship League. She was one of the founders of the Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the NAACP. 

TSD: There is a story you tell that really exposes Ida’s fierceness. In 1913, during the Women’s Suffrage Parade, White women suffragists asked the Black women to march in the back, but Ida refused. 

MD: Yes. She pretended to agree but found the Illinois Delegation that she’d been working with and marched in the front with them. She’d been working tirelessly with them and didn’t think it was right that she couldn’t march with them, so she did. 

TSD: We often hear the stories of Ida – the journalist, the suffragist, and activist – but she was also a wife and mother in a time where women were not encouraged to be on the frontlines, especially if they had a family at home. What can you tell us about Ida the woman, wife and mother?

MD: From her work we can see that she was very opinionated and a no-nonsense person; but as I mentioned her work was very personal to her, and she wasn’t going to stop fighting even after getting married and having children. 

I think one of the things that helped her was her husband, who is my great-grandfather. He was a feminist and was the main cook. He provided ways for her not to have to deal with so many things that take up women’s time. This freed her up to do the work that she did outside of the home. I think the partnership was significant. 

TSD: This book not only tells the story of Ida, but also mentions so many other notable activists, past and present. What do you hope people gain from this book?

MD: I hope that people will not only learn about my great-grandmother but are inspired to think about what they can do to make our world a better, more equal place for all. 

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