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100 Years Later, These Activists Continue Their Ancestors’ Work

A new generation of activists traces its ancestry and inspiration to key figures in the suffrage movement.

Michelle Duster


Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Michelle Duster marvels at how her great-grandmother did it all, juggling research and writing, teaching and speaking. An educator turned journalist, Wells-Barnett’s illustrated accounts of lynchings as an instrument of terror jolted the nation and endangered her life. She was also a founder of the N.A.A.C.P. and a suffragist who demanded voting rights be inseparable from civil rights. Wells-Barnett refused to comply with Alice Paul’s segregation of the 8,000-strong Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington on March 3, 1913, edging into the Illinois contingent as it moved past and marching as the only Black woman in the state delegation. This year Wells-Barnett, who died in 1931, was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

“She lived her life on her own terms,” Ms. Duster said.

Born into slavery, Wells-Barnett “could go to the White House and talk to two different presidents,” Ms. Duster said. “But at the same time, she took in people who were practically homeless.”

After college, Ms. Duster immersed herself in Wells-Barnett’s life. “I got very interested in the impact of images on people’s worldview,” she said. “I felt like I was experiencing the results of that level of intentional misinformation. That has been the driving force of my whole career — how can I dismantle these false narratives of exactly who African-Americans are?”

Ms. Duster lives in Chicago, where Wells-Barnett settled after a white mob destroyed her Tennessee newspaper office. She teaches writing at Columbia College Chicago and tutors at Wilbur Wright College.

Ms. Duster speaks widely about her great-grandmother’s legacy, a theme explored in her book “Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells.” She is creating an initiative “to educate people about the involvement of Black women in the suffrage movement, and how it ties into today,” she said. Ms. Duster has seen social media posts invoking Wells-Barnett, and an article crediting her with creating a blueprint for opposing police violence. “They’re giving her credit for paving the way, expressing inspiration for how outspoken she was, and willingly and knowingly putting her life in danger,” Ms. Duster said. In addition to exposing lynchings as state-sanctioned murder, “she was encouraging Black people to exercise the power that they did have,” organizing boycotts of white-owned businesses and streetcars and a mass exodus of Black residents from Memphis. “That’s why they wanted to kill her.”