I spent a few enjoyable hours this afternoon in the special collections at the University of Chicago looking over some of the Ida B. Wells collection. I’m working on a paper about her decision, along with Fredrick Douglass, to protest the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Not necessarily related to that project, here are a few things that stood out as I went through the papers:
- I held a business card-sized promotion soliciting votes for her election as a Republican delegate to the 1928 convention in Kansas City. One of the most radical, outspoken activists for civil rights wanted to be a delegate to the Republican convention. Things have changed a bit since 1928.
- On Friday, January 1, at one o’clock in the morning, Wells reflected on the watch night service from which she’d just returned: “I go forth on the renewed pilgrimage of this New Year with renewed hope, vigor, a remembrance of the glorious beginnings and humbly pray for wisdom, humility, success in my undertakings if it be My Father’s good pleasure, and a stronger Christianity that will make itself felt.” One of my pet peeves about the way historians often reflect on Wells (and her African American contemporaries) is how her Christianity is assumed and thus ignored. There can be a bit of historical and cultural prejudice that refuses to imagine that her faith was one of the things that allowed Wells to live such an extraordinarily brave and intelligent life. A letter like this pushes against those biases.
- One folder held a bunch of photos and this one made me stop for a minute. Here we see Wells with Mrs. Betty Moss and her two children. Moss was made a widow when her husband Tom, a good friend of Wells, was lynched in Memphis. I think this image hit me hard because last week, once again, we saw Black women standing in front of cameras because their men – boyfriend, son – had been murdered by state-sanctioned violence. It’s a sad and infuriating thing to consider- the script this nation so forcefully holds itself to.
I’ll continue to do my small part to make Wells more widely known. As I learn more about her remarkable life I’m increasingly sure that she’s the model we need to bravely face the traumas and fears of our day.