This week, a Chicago committee revealed a new statue paying tribute to the anti-lynching and suffrage activist Ida B. Wells, making it the city’s first sculpture honoring a Black woman.
As Maya Mokh reports for the Chicago Tribune, the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee hosted an unveiling ceremony for the monument, called the Light of Truth, this Wednesday. Sculptor Richard Hunt created the piece over the course of three years, and earlier this month, workers installed the completed statue in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, at the former site of the Ida B. Wells Homes, a Chicago Housing Authority public housing project that city officials demolished in 2011.
“We're a very multicultural city and I think that the public structures and public tributes should reflect who we are as city and as a nation,” Michelle Duster, Ida B. Wells' great granddaughter, tells ABC News.
Born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells-Barnett was enslaved as a young child, notes the National Women’s History Museum. However, she and her family became free people after the Civil War, and the young woman eventually became involved with activist causes. In 1884, Wells-Barnett filed a lawsuit against a Memphis business for discriminatory treatment, channeling her activism through legal means. But when a white mob lynched her close friend, she shifted her focus to addressing white mob violence.
Later in life, Wells went on to become a journalist and used her work in publishing as a means to investigate and write extensive reports on lynching in America, wrote Becky Little for History.com in 2018. She owned and edited several newspapers, and eventually moved to Chicago. Furthermore, Wells fought to end sexual as well as racial discrimination, though white suffragists often treated her unfairly. In one 1913 march for women's suffrage, white leaders asked Wells to walk in the back of the group on account of her race, but she refused, wrote Nora McGreevy in a 2020 Smithsonian article.
Wells died on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68, but her work was formally recognized last year when the Pulitzer Prize posthumously honored her for “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
The Ida B. Wells Commerative Art Committee began a $300,000 fundraising effort to erect the statue after the housing development in Wells' name closed, writes Jamie Nesbitt Golden for Block Club Chicago, a local, nonprofit news organization. It ultimately took the group seven years to crowdfund sufficient resources to create the statue, with the organization finally meeting its goal in July 2018 after an extensive social media campaign, noted Nesbitt Golden in a 2019 Block Club Chicago article.
These efforts to build a public monument to Wells-Barnett also overlapped with other endeavors to commemorate the former writer and activist, such as the renaming of Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive in 2019.
Speaking with the Tribune, Duster says, “There’s this continuum of the community being engaged and involved in recognizing the contributions that my great-grandmother made, not only to the city of Chicago, but to the country.”
Light of Truth is a towering, metal structure with three pillars that support a sinuous, silver-colored object. When deciding on the design of the monument, the committee opted to go with something abstract instead of a representational bust, because they felt it was the “best way to capture who Ida was, because she was a very multidimensional person,” as Duster tells the Tribune. “We wanted people to be able to interpret for themselves part of who she was—connect it with them.”
To bring this vision to life, the committee turned to Hunt, who is from Chicago and knows Wells' story.
According to WTTW News’ Marc Vitali, Hunt—an award-winning artist and School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate—usually creates sculptures with materials like Corten steel, bronze, copper, brass and other scrap materials.
“[The sculpture is] dynamic and it’s three-dimensional,” Hunt tells WTTW. “You can have a painting or a mural or something on a wall, and that’s something that you look at that doesn’t change, but if you have a sculpture somewhere, you look at it from here, you look at it from there, you look at it from another side. It reveals itself in different ways.”
In an 1892 speech, Wells famously said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” It was this sentiment that inspired the name of the sculpture.
Those interested in the monument and related events can find more information at idabwellsmonument.org.