AP/Charles Rex Arbogast
Michelle Duster in her Chicago home with a portrait of her great-grandmother Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett spent more than half of her life in Chicago. But though she was one of the most prominent black leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries, there's no monument to her anywhere in the city. Wells's great-granddaughter and a dedicated group of community members have been trying to change that since 2011, and a new fund-raising push launched on Twitter this week has infused their quest with new urgency.
On Monday, educator and organizer Mariame Kaba announced
that she wanted to raise $10,000 for the monument to Wells by May 10, promising to contribute $1,000 of her own on top of that. Kaba rallied people to donate whatever they could to the monument fund
with the #IdaPledge hashtag. Since the fund collects money through PayPal, it's impossible to follow donations in real time. Kaba asked those that contributed to contact her and the promised to tweet a weekly update on progress toward her $10,000 goal.
Kaba recently coauthored a self-guided tour book called Lifting as They Climbed
, which spotlights African-American women's history on the south side. "It has a big focus on Ida B. Wells-Barnett—I have always been paying attention to her and her work," Kaba explains. So she was surprised to learn that there's no monument to the anti-lynching crusader who cofounded the NAACP in Chicago, and was eager to uplift the efforts of Michelle Duster—Wells's great-granddaughter.
Kaba's fund-raising push surpassed her initial $10,000 goal within a day, and by the end of the week also reached Kaba's revised $20,000 benchmark. Donations large and small have poured in from around the country; at least one celebrity—Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
, the basis of the Netflix show— has contributed.
Duster is hopeful that after years of fund-raising efforts the #IdaPledge push will finally get the monument fund to its $300,000 goal. The committee has selected renowned Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt (who already has several public artworks around the city) to create an abstract monumental sculpture that will incorporate Wells's image at different ages, her writing, and information about her life. The money will cover the cost of materials—Hunt has historically worked in metals like steel, bronze, and iron—as well as construction permits. The proposed site in Bronzeville sits at the heart of what was once the Ida B. Wells public housing development—the first public housing constructed for African-American families in the city—and is now the Oakwood Shores mixed-income community. After its completion, the monument will be donated to the city's public art collection.
Back in 2011, "I thought it would be easy to raise that amount of money considering how well known my great-grandmother is and how well-known Richard Hunt is," says Duster, who is also active with the family's Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation
. Since then, the group has undertaken several fund-raising pushes and has secured major gifts from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and a variety of corporations and philanthropies. But the monument fund was still about $200,000 short of its goal before Kaba launched the #IdaPledge.
"I do think at this point the momentum is building," Duster says. "I think it is very likely we'll raise the money soon."
Wells's legacy has recently received a flurry of attention. In March, the New York Times
launched the "Overlooked" project, paying tribute to important people overlooked by their obituary section. Wells—whose wedding once got announced in Times
—was the first to be profiled
. The Times
subsequently profiled her on its podcast the Daily
"I think where we are in our country from a social standpoint has created a heightened interest in women being represented, minorities being represented, the debate about what is in our public spaces, how our history is represented," Duster says. "The #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter—that's increasing the dialogue about who's represented and what kind of images matter. I think that's raising the awareness about what we're doing."
Duster and Kaba now hope to raise the last $180,000 needed for the monument by Wells's birthday—July 16. Donations are tax-deductible and can be made at idabwellsmonument.org.
AP /John Zich
Richard Hunt welding in his studio in 1996. Now in his 80s, Hunt has created a variety of monumental public artworks on display around Chicago.