The descendants of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an African-American journalist, suffragist, newspaper editor, teacher, anti-lynching crusader, and early leader of the civil rights movement, traveled from Holly Springs, Miss., to Memphis last Saturday (July 12) morning to commemorate her 152nd birthday.
“We’re here to celebrate Ida B. Wells’ birthday (the 18th annual) on the date closest to her birthday,” said the Rev. Leona Harris, executive director of the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum, a cultural center for African-American history in Holly Springs.
Wells-Barnett was born in Holly Springs on July 16, 1862. She lived and worked in Memphis and died in 1931 in Chicago at the age of 68. Harris organized the group and contracted with Heritage Tours of Memphis to “help young people to connect the past to the future.”
The trip to Memphis was part of a three-day weekend celebration that began last Friday (July 11) with an opening ceremony led by Holly Springs Mayor Kelvin Buck and an art display at the Eddie L. Smith Multipurpose Center, featuring Tougaloo, Miss. artist Bill Clifton and memorabilia from the civil rights era.
On Saturday, 15 of Wells-Barnett’s descendants toured the National Civil Rights Museum, which includes a display on the crusader. “I can’t wait to see the renovations,” Alfreda Duster Ferrell said before locating her grandmother among a panel of women fighting for various rights during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Ferrell, 79, who lives in Las Vegas, toured the museum in a motor scooter. She was accompanied by two of her sons, Kenneth and Steve; her grandchildren, Tiana, Alesha, Elliot and Mantel; and her great grandchildren, Justin and Jaylon.
“It’s humbling that she did so much for her life,” said Kenneth Ferrell, referring to his great grandmother. “She was such an inspiring woman.”
Steve Ferrell said the image of Wells-Barnett and the caption beneath it, detailing her contribution to history, was a pleasant experience. “It’s a nice piece of history that my kids need to see and my grandkids need to see. It shows everyday people fought the good fight.”
Tiana L. Ferrell, Kenneth’s daughter, said it’s a blessing and a curse to be the great, great-granddaughter of Wells-Barnett. “A lot of it is pressure to do great things,” she said, adding that she will continue what her famous ancestor started.
Ferrell is the publisher of the Atlanta Free Speech, an online digital and print publication based in Fulton County, Ga. It was inspired by The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, which Wells-Barnett co-owned and wrote some of her most enlightened anti-lynching articles.
“There was a need for it,” the 30-year-old publisher said, noting that Atlanta’s daily newspaper had been less than favorable toward African Americans, which prompted her to start her own newspaper. “We don’t make the front page of the paper. So I’m trying to fill that void.”
Duplicating Wells-Barnett’s exploits and contributions to history is not the goal or challenge of Michelle Duster, Wells-Barnett’s great granddaughter.
“We were raised to have our own accomplishments, our own achievements, our own identity, and not ride on the legacy of Ida,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of pressure to live up to anyone, but to stay in school and take care of yourself.”
After the museum tour, the group lunched at Four-Way Grill, known during post-Civil War Memphis as the “Curve,” the site of People’s Grocery, where three of Wells-Barnett’s friends were killed by a white mob following a racial conflict.
The group then visited Zion Christian Cemetery, where the three men are buried. And later on that evening, they all returned to Holly Springs for an annual banquet at Rust College (formerly Shaw University), Wells-Barnett’s alma mater.
New York performance artist Safiya Bandele provided the entertainment. She portrayed Wells-Barnett through “narration, dance and physical expression.” It was a fitting tribute to Wells-Barnett, the journalist, teacher, and outspoken leader.