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Ida B. Wells Barnett is honored in Chicago

Chicago’s City Council officially renamed Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive Wednesday, making the prominent east-west artery the first downtown street named for a woman of color and honoring one of the city’s great activists.

An African-American journalist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett worked to expose lynching, pushed for women’s right to vote and started numerous organizations to help African-Americans gain economic and political power across the country.

For many years, Wells’ work was overlooked, even in her own time. When she died in 1931, The New York Times failed to write an obituary, an error in judgment the newspaper tried to address with a story earlier this year.

Near the end of her life, Wells attended a Negro History meeting but left disappointed because her storied career went unacknowledged among her contemporaries, according to her biographer, Paula Giddings, author of “Ida: A Sword Among Lions.”

But now with a major street renamed in her honor and plans to construct a monument to her in Bronzeville, the pioneering civil and women’s rights icon’s memory lives.

9 things you must know about Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ald. Sophia King, 4th, who pushed the measure alongside Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, called Wells “a phenomenal woman” and “the original boss.”

“This moment today is a historical moment, a bittersweet moment because it also acknowledges there has never been a street downtown named after a woman and/or a person of color,” King said. “It’s long overdue.”

Reilly praised Wells, who fled Tennessee for Chicago, saying “every place she went, every geography she moved to, she made a big impact.”

Wells’ great-granddaughter Michelle Duster applauded the council for honoring her “in a way that’s fitting for the level of contribution she gave to this country.”

“My great-grandmother sacrificed a lot in order to fight for justice and equality for women and of African-Americans in particular,” Duster said. “To some extent during her lifetime and then definitely after her lifetime, I don’t think she got as much credit for the work as she deserved.”

The new street name would be in effect only for Congress Parkway between Grant Park and the expressway interchange at the west end of downtown. It would not change farther west.

The city in 1968 renamed South Park Way for Martin Luther King Jr. In 1986, the city renamed Seneca Street “Mies van der Rohe Way,” according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. The city also voted Wednesday to rename Museum Campus Drive Special Olympics Drive.

The effort was supported by dozens of organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Chicago.

The city’s Department of Transportation said the department is required by law to provide written notification to the postal service and the board of elections of the name change. It’ll be at least 30 days before the signs change, a spokeswoman said.

The name change was a compromise deal meant to avoid an election-year clash with Italian-American groups that opposed an earlier proposal to change the name of Balbo Drive in Wells’ honor.

Balbo Drive is named for Italo Balbo, a pilot who flew from Rome to Chicago in 1933 for the Century of Progress Exposition and who was an ally of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Some local Italian-American groups say Balbo's name should stay on the street because his flying feat should be considered separately from his ties to the dictator.

King and Reilly backed off that fight and turned their attention to renaming Congress, but both have suggested Balbo Drive should eventually be renamed, possibly for a Chicagoan of Italian descent without fascist links.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said there’s “poetry” in renaming Congress after Wells due to the street’s history. Long ago, Congress was named after former President John Tyler, who was the only president to join the Confederacy. The Chicago Public Library said the street was renamed Congress in September 1872, and though it wasn’t explicitly said, “No doubt the Union veterans on the council were not ready to forgive and forget in 1872.”

Wells was born enslaved in 1862 and lost her parents as a teenager to yellow fever. She got a job and raised her five siblings, writing in her autobiography, “There’s nobody but me to look after them now.”

With her husband, Chicago attorney and newspaper publisher Ferdinand Barnett, Wells’ wedding announcement ran on the front page of The New York Times. Together they raised four children on the South Side.

As a journalist and newspaper publisher, Wells-Barnett traveled throughout the South documenting and writing about the lynchings of black men. She chronicled each case, keeping records, pulling police files and interviewing witnesses. Her newspaper offices in Memphis, Tenn., were vandalized, and she was run out of the city. Still, she went on to publish “Southern Horrors,” a long-form article that proved lynching was a form of racial violence aimed at ambitious black Southerners.

She was also a mentor to W.E.B. Du Bois and was close friends with the abolitionist and freedom fighter Frederick Douglass.

She moved to Chicago in 1894 and opened a black settlement house offering housing and social services to African-Americans moving North.

Duster said she hopes the street-naming “will come along with education about who she was.”

After social media push, organizers raise enough to pay for Ida B. Wells-Barnett monument.

At a pre-vote press conference, Reilly said the street renaming effort and a related effort to build a monument in Wells’ honor has “done a lot to educate people in Chicago about her … legacy.”

“A lot of folks who didn’t really know who Ida B. Wells was, they’ve learned over the last several months,” Reilly said.

Referring to the confusion expressed by some people over the already-existing Wells Street, King said, “They obviously have never been to Atlanta where there’s Peach Street, Peach Way, Peach Drive, Peach Avenue, Peach whatever.”

“I think we’ll figure it out,” King said. “I for one will be calling it Ida Drive.”

Chicago Tribune’s Lolly Bowean contributed.

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