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Saturday, July 16, 2022

July 16-17, 2022: Investigative Journalists: Ida B. Wells

[This weekend we celebrate the 160th birthday of one of my favorite Americans, Ida B. Wells. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of fellow investigative journalists, leading up to this special tribute to the inimitable Wells!]

On one of my favorite inspiring moments in a life absolutely overflowing with them.

I’ve written a lot about Ida B. Wells in this space and elsewhere, from her vital investigative journalism on the lynching epidemic to her crucial commentary on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to her righteous protest within a protest at the 1914 Suffrage March in Washington. I’ve also singled out in a separate post the particularly courageous 1892 moment that I would put on the very short list, and maybe at the top of that list, of the most inspiring in American history. And I haven’t even had the chance to talk at length yet about her crucial and far too often downplayed role in co-founding the NAACP, or the groundbreaking women’s organization she founded in Chicago, or the equally groundbreaking Black Settlement House she and her husband created, or the time she ran for statewide political office just a year before she passed away, or…

So yeah, no shortage of incredible and inspiring moments in the life of one of my top-two favorite Americans. But in this tribute post I wanted to highlight a moment I only learned about recently, one that pulls together multiple sides of Wells’ identity and life as she so often managed to, one that really represents the grassroots yet groundbreaking community activism at the heart of all that Wells did, and one that’s just damn beautiful (among many other adjectives): her 1897 founding of a kindergarten in the basement of Chicago’s Bethel AME Church. That moment is traced in this NPR piece on Wells’ many legacies in Chicago, with much of the information (throughout the piece and for this particular section) provided by Wells’ great-granddaughter Michelle Duster. Duster’s book Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells (2021) should be required reading for all Americans, and mostly I want to say a) read both of those hyperlinked pieces and then b) pick up the book!

But I do want to say one thing more about why I love this particular moment so much. Wells was inspired to create the kindergarten not just out of a sense of communal need (although yes, as always), but also because of her own role as a young parent, her perspective on what her own growing children needed for their own best chance at happiness and success. I know it can be difficult enough to get us to better remember historical figures at all, but when we do, far too often it’s through a pretty narrow or simplistic lens, a focus on one particular side of their work or identity (such as Wells’ anti-lynching investigative journalism, which was indeed exemplary and vital but just one slice of this incredibly multi-layered person). When in truth, historical figures like Wells are as three-dimensional as all people—and moreover, I would argue that a main thing which makes our best figures so impressive and inspiring is the way in which their vital work extends into every arena, of their identities and lives and of our communities and society alike. So for her 160th birthday, I can think of few better ways to pay tribute to the inspiring greatness of Ida B. Wells than to remember that time she founded a kindergarten.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other investigative journalists you’d highlight?

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