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A fitting honor for civil-rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett

IdB. Wells-Barnett crack investigative journalist succeeded her crusade stop racist violence. Now 150 years later new brlynching — murders black

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a crack investigative journalist, succeeded in her crusade to stop racist violence. Now, 150 years later, a new brand of lynching — the murders of black and Latino men and boys — by our own hands, would be too much for her to fathom.

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Updated: August 24, 2012 6:04AM

July 16, 2012, marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a singular Chicagoan, among many other things: journalist, educator, civil-rights activist, suffragist, mother and wife, rabble-rouser.

Wells-Barnett was born in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1862, the daughter of former slaves. She died on Chicago’s South Side at 68. She spent her life standing against the political and social mayhem visited upon the black race of her time.

The schoolteacher-turned-journalist was best known for her advocacy against the scourge of lynching. She deployed the power of the press and her fiery voice to investigate, expose and decry the barbaric murders of black men and boys in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Wells-Barnett was a crack investigative reporter before they had a name for it. She defied insults, humiliation and threats to produce reams of transformative journalism. Her treatise, “The Red Record,” documented and detailed the barbaric practice of lynching. “Ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution,” she wrote.

I served as the Ida B. Wells-Barnett professor at DePaul University for six years. It was a battle to get my students and peers to know her name. This fascinating historical figure has been buried in our ignorance. Like too much of our history, her legacy is unknown and underappreciated.

Last Monday evening, several dozen appreciators gathered to change that. The Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee hosted a reception at a senior citizens building in Bronzeville to honor her and pitch for donations for a monument to be designed by Richard Hunt, the noted Chicago sculptor.

The 20-foot granite and bronze piece will be installed at 37th and Langley, the site of the old Ida B. Wells Homes, the public housing development erected a decade after her death.

The Wells Homes were intended as a model for bootstrap families on their way up and out. Over 60 years, the development morphed into an ugly symbol of the social maladies of black poverty — gangs, drugs and violence. Several years ago, it was demolished to make way for Oakwood Shores, a mixed-income community.

As Ida’s admirers celebrated her legacy over lemonade and sheet cake, I reflected on our recent, painful history. The mayhem of Chicago 2012. The inexplicable, seemingly unstoppable murders of black and Latino young men and boys, and even a little girl named Heaven, on the South and West sides of Chicago. Hundreds murdered and shot, not by racist white oppressors, but by their own. Lynching by our own hands.

One hundred and fifty years later, this new brand of lynching would crack even the steely nerves of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She succeeded in her crusade to stop racist violence. Generations later, we are executing our own.

It would be too much for even this indomitable woman to fathom.

What would Ida say? We can’t blame our stars. It’s us.

For more on Ida’s monument, go to

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