On the Last Day of Black History Month, Ida B. Wells Is Not Just a Housing Project

I never had a single teacher tell me about one of the greatest women America has ever known, Ida B. Wells.

No, I never learned in school about how she carried a pistol and a pen--the pistol to protect herself from the many white people who wanted to permanently silence the words she penned about the horrors of lynching in America. Nowadays students--if they're lucky enough to have a good history teacher--hear the story of Rosa Parks declining to move to the back of the bus, but never is a word spoken about Wells' 1884 refusal to give up her seat on a train to a white person--and her subsequent suit against the railroad.

Indeed, on the last day of Black History Month, I am feeling very grateful for my mom and dad. My parents taught me about Wells and how she was a fighter for both women's rights and racial equality. My parents also have a pretty extensive library of books, and among them are several tomes on notable figures in black history.

In those books I read about how Wells used her journalism and public speaking skills to tell the truth to the world about the experiences of black Americans. In one of my favorite quotes from her, Wells says, "The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press."

Wells has become a personal heroine of mine. Years ago when I was a teacher, I gave a workshop on classroom management and working effectively with black children. I remember asking a room of young, mostly white teachers, if they knew who Wells was. None of them did, and I wondered aloud how they could expect to educate black children if they didn't take steps to learn and love black culture, or our history. After all, you would not go teach in China and not read anything about Chinese history and culture.

One young man snidely replied that it didn't really matter if he knew who Wells was since none of his students would know either. He seemed surprised when I informed him that some of his students might actually know about Wells because many black people choose to educate themselves and their children about black history--and why wouldn't he want to know about such an amazing historical figure and educate his kids about her? Wait, because she's black and you think she doesn't matter?

Today my love for Wells was renewed after the Zinn Education Project tweeted a fantastic Ms. Magazine article about her. I was so happy to read it, to see her fight for racial justice detailed and celebrated--really, my heart felt so full after I read it. Hours later, I was telling a friend about it and wondered what her descendants are up to and how they continue her legacy. The reply? "Ida B. Wells...Wasn't she the one who got rich on hair grease?"

"Um, no. That was Madame CJ Walker." And it was a whole hair care system, not hair grease.  

"Oh, well I know there's a housing project named after her."

Facepalm. Yes, there was a Chicago housing project named after Wells. One of the greatest civil rights activists this nation has ever seen...reduced to the name on a housing project.

The interaction made me profoundly sad, and I had a hard time hiding my disappointment that my friend--who is black--was so ignorant about Wells. But this is what happens when there is no one willing or able to pass on knowledge that shouldn't be forgotten. Like my parents before me, I'm not waiting for public school to teach my boys about her. After all, if I don't teach them, as my friend has shown me, it's likely that no one will.


b. said…
May I just say thank you to Mr. Harry Amana @ UNC for your JOMC class on the Black Press and your dedication to teaching me about Ms. Wells!

I was in college by the time I heard the name. I wondered to myself WHY I had never heard of her before college! Thank you for highlighting her again...she was an AMAZING person.
Catfish said…
Thanks for a great post! I've found that so many women in our history are lost (not a new revelation, I know!), and if they are both a woman and a minority, pushed even farther back in our collective mind. I hope that one day children will be able to understand our past through a lens other than that of Western patriarchy.
Jen said…
Thank you for sharing. I did not ever learn about Ms Wells. I'm still working on filling the gaps left by my limited education in Black History.
nick said…
I didn't know about Ida Wells either. It's good that you're teaching your kids about passionate radicals like Ida who stood up against tyranny and prejudice, as opposed to people who're famous but did nothing but defend the status quo.
Anonymous said…
Now I need to learn more about Ida Wells, thank you for the intro.
As for that smart aleck teacher, isn't the point of teaching to expose kids to things they don't know? Let's hope he's in another line of work now. Keep on trucking, lady. Jenny
Unknown said…
Liz, meet Dan Duster http://houseonahillorg.blogspot.com/search?q=Dan+duster

He still does many great things to spread the word about his great-grandmother Ida B. Wells.

He is a dear friend and great humanitarian ... I shared this post with him ;)

Great post as always!
b. said…
I read this post today and was reminded of yours. http://www.flygirlblog.com/2012/03/black-identity-black-history-always.html
kegf said…
Do you have a book list that you'd suggest to start a black history library for kids to peruse? We have a small selection that we're looking to grow (our oldest is just learning to read now) and I always love recommendations from other readers.

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