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Ida B. Wells Drive: Chicago’s First Major Street Named After a Black Woman

Ida B. Wells was a prominent journalist who made a significant impact on the South Side of Chicago and around the world.

Ida B. Wells Chicago South Side
Public Domain

“Just think. There will be generations that think it’s perfectly normal for a major street in downtown Chicago to be named after an African American woman. Ida B Wells made history in her quest for equal rights. We made history by making her visible.”

Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells

Anyone who visits or lives in Chicago will have a chance to see the history and contributions of a Black woman honored on a main street in Chicago.

On Monday, February 11, 2019, Ida B. Wells was honored with a street named after her in downtown Chicago. The city renamed Congress Parkway, a street that runs through downtown, to Ida B. Wells Drive. This marked the first time an African-American woman received public recognition on a major street in Chicago.

Dignitaries, elected officials, activists, journalists, and residents came together to celebrate the work of Ida B. Wells and what the renaming of Congress Parkway will mean for generations to come.

“She was an original boss,” said 4th Ward alderwoman Sophia King, who spearheaded the effort along with 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly, to rename Congress Parkway. “She spoke truth to power and changed the landscape of Chicago and the world.”

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a trailblazing journalist, speaker, and civil rights activist who was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862. She is known for her fearless and outspoken advocacy against the lynching of Black men. She spoke around the world, shedding the light on racial injustices and inequities that led to countless deaths.

What many may not know about Ida B. Wells is her significant impact on Chicago’s South Side.

She moved to Chicago in her 30s, and married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a Chicago newspaper man and lawyer, who founded The Conservator, which was the first black newspaper in Chicago. In 1910, they started the Negro Fellowship League to provide support to Black people moving from the South to the North in search of better opportunities. The League offered library resources, housing, employment assistance, and a community center.

Wells also established one of the first kindergartens for Black children in the city. On January 30, 1913 she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club to help Black women gain the right to vote in Illinois. Women’s participation in the political process opened the doors for Chicago’s first Black Alderman, Oscar de Priest, in 1915.

Although Wells contributed her time and gifts to advancing racial justice, many people still have no idea the depth of her work. But Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, has been on a mission to change that for more than a decade.

Duster is the author of Ida B. the Queen, and editor of the book Ida in Her Own Words. She believes that renaming Congress Parkway is one step in the right direction towards making sure Black women like Ida B. Wells are visible in public spaces.

“This is not just about Ida B. Wells,” said Duster. “It’s about we as black women — we need to be seen.”

Ida B. Wells spent more than three decades empowering Black men and women on the South Side of Chicago before her death on March 25, 1931. Duster hopes the story of Ida B. Wells will inspire another generation of leaders, and pave the way for more women to be recognized in the city.

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