Ida B. Wells-Barnett in a photograph by Mary Garrity from c. 1893.
Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis (Photo: Shirley Jackson)

The late Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis, the accomplished Civil Rights activist, author, historian and University of Memphis educator, had one more dream in December 2019.

She wanted her beloved Memphis to pay tribute to an iconic pioneer of civil rights, Ida B. Wells.

The city was long overdue to pay tribute to Wells’ anti-lynching work, which had its impactful genesis here. 

Health challenges inspired Dr. DeCosta-Willis to reach out to another noted author and historian, and pastor emeritus Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr.

She would not embark on this endeavor without him, DeCosta-Willis told Gray. He said, “Let’s do it.”

On Jan. 7, DeCosta-Willis’ death placed the reins of the project squarely in the hands of Gray.

Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr.

“Of course, we knew Dr. Willis was facing serious health challenges,” said Gray. “But we both agreed that there was a need for this work. Ida B. Wells’ life and legacy must be remembered. 

“Although we lost Dr. Willis, the work goes on, and Friday (Feb. 5) gets us another step closer to the vision’s fruition.”

Friday, at the appointed site, Gray and other proponents of the project will offer Memphians a snapshot of what the life-sized statue will look like at the corner of Downtown’s Beale and Fourth Streets. A silhouette of the artistic creation will be unveiled.

Larry and Andrea Lugar of the Lugar Foundry in Eads were commissioned with the weighty task of generating Wells’ image.

“I had already worked with Larry and Andrea Lugar to erect a life-size statue of Bishop Isaac Lane on the Lane College campus (in Jackson, Tennessee) in 2018,” x Gray said.

“It was the commemoration of my 50th anniversary as a graduate of the institution. The Lugars have marked the Memphis landscape with statues of Elvis Presley, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Milton Campbell, Bishop G. E. Patterson, and others. I felt they were right for this project,” Gray said.

Gray wants Friday to kick the fundraising effort into overdrive as excitement builds surrounding the ceremonial unveiling set for July 16.

“The unveiling of the statue and the other surrounding creations honoring Ida B. Wells is scheduled on her birthday, July 16,” said Gray. “We presently stand at 55 percent of our $250,000 goal to complete work on the project. As we move into the second and final stage of fundraising, our eyes are fixed on the prize.”

Professional fundraisers Saad and Shaw of Memphis is directing the funding effort. Gray said the second phase will urge “every citizen, organization, and corporation in the Memphis area” to donate.

“Dr. Willis and I made a covenant to see this work through,” said Gray. “In Chicago, where Wells made her home and raised a family, it took nearly a decade to build a statue to honor her. I promised in the very beginning that it will not take us nearly 10 years to honor Ida B. Wells in this way.”

The public is invited to the Friday event. Starting time is 10 a.m.

 “The cause is noble, and it is just,” said Gray. “Too many Memphians, especially our young people, don’t know who Ida B. Wells was. But her statue and exhibit right outside of historic First Baptist Church on Fourth Street will extol her contributions to the struggle for equality and justice for her people – African-American people.”

Wells published a newspaper in the basement of First Baptist Church on Fourth, denouncing the practice of lynching. She raged, particularly, at the lynching of three, successful African-American businessmen, who ran a grocery store, by whites.

In 1892, Wells was forced out of Memphis, fleeing for her life, as the threat of lynching was made against her because she refused to stop writing about it. 

She made her home in Chicago, but never returned to Memphis, even years after the threat of lynching was assuaged.

Donations can be made via PayPal or Venmo, [email protected] and 

Cash app: $IDABWELLSTATUE.