Ida B Wells Speaks Through Her Descendants on Trump’s War on the Media and Black Lives Matter
In the second part of the series celebrating Wells’ 155th birthday, her great grandson explores how Wells would have reacted to Trump’s hostility to the media and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement
Taya Graham: She was born into slavery but ended up becoming one of the country’s most influential journalists. Her reporting on lynchings and racism were a beacon of light during the reconstruction, and her advocacy for racial equality is a message that still resonates today. I’m talking about Ida B. Wells, the legendary writer and commentator on race and racism.
Her journalism career was sparked by an act of defiance. Removed from a train after she refused to sit in a section reserved for coloreds, Ida wrote about it and the article sent shock waves across the country and launched a career that transformed the way we talk about the black experience in America. This weekend, relatives are planning a [151st] celebration for Ida. She’s also the namesake of the Ida B. restaurant opening at The Real News headquarters in Baltimore City, Maryland. To help us learn about this renowned journalist, I’m joined by her great grandson, Daniel Duster.
Mr. Duster, just to start off with, could you give us a little overview of Ida’s career, what she’s accomplished and why we’re still talking about her today?
Daniel Duster: As you know, she was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, 1862, to slaves. The first thing that her parents did when slavery ended was to take all the children to school. She was the oldest of eight. As a result of her being educated, what happened then … She was born in 1862. 1878, yellow fever really decimated large parts of the South, so both of her parents died and one of her younger siblings died as a result. At the age of 16, she decided to get a job as a school teacher to help take care of her family. It was a very bold move in that, at the age of 16 she was taking care of five younger siblings. Another sibling had passed away almost after childbirth, so it was her and five other siblings. At the age of 16, to decide to do that, to me is incredible. At the age of 48, if somebody said, “Can you take care of four kids starting right now,” I’d be more than tepid about it.
She got a job as a school teacher, used to go travel by train to the school during the week and would come home on the weekends. The family did receive some support from others, but she was the primary breadwinner in the family at that time. Later on, she moved to Memphis to become a school teacher there, and did that for several years. In 1884, she was on the rail car. And after slavery, supposedly everything was equal, but in Tennessee, they went back … The laws were kind of up to the state, so what had been open seating for everyone became a Jim Crow law where they said blacks needed to move to a different car. She had purchased a first class ticket and the conductor came and said, “Hey, look, you need to move,” and she was like, “No, this is first class, I’m staying in this car.” The conductor tried to forcibly remove her and she bit him and put up a struggle.
Taya Graham: Wow.
Daniel Duster: At this age she was literally like 5’1″, 110 pounds, so a petite woman at that time, and it took the conductor and two other men to forcibly remove her from the rail car. When that happened, actually the rest of the passengers cheered. She put up a fight. She was literally clothes torn, some bruises and scratches, and she’s highly upset. She’s pissed. She decides to sue the Tennessee Railroad and actually won. She won $500. That was later overturned and she ended up having to pay $200 later on in court costs. That was one of her first experiences really saying, “Things aren’t fair. I want justice.” Fast forward a few years later, she was still in Memphis, school teacher, and wrote an article about the disparate and unfair practices of the schools because the schools were segregated. She said the white schools were receiving this amount of funding and better buildings, better books, and the black schools received less funding, less resources. We don’t hear about that today, do we?
She wasn’t fired, but her contract was not renewed for the next teaching season. She was somewhat forced into doing something on her own. Because she was educated and had good writing skills and public speaking skills, she became a journalist for the Memphis Free Speech, and actually ended up purchasing the Memphis Free Speech, so she was part owner of that. Then in 1892, she had three friends who were lynched, and these were upstanding men in the community, Thomas Moss, Will Stewart, Calvin McDonald, who were lynched. She was so close to Thomas Moss she was actually godmother to his child. She knew these men very well and knew that they were upstanding men, and at the time, we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have much in the way of media, so whatever was printed in the paper, people tended to believe.
When other lynchings were printed, it’s like, okay well the … Especially black men, most of those were accusations of rape or endangering a white woman or white people. When she read those stories, she believed it. When reading about … She was out of town when the lynching happened in Memphis, and she was like, “No, these men are upstanding guys in the community.” What happened was, two of them were store owners. The People’s Grocery in Memphis, and there was a racist white store owner that had a store that was just across the way from that store. Bottom line is, there was conflict, things escalated, the racist white people in the town said they were going to burn down The People’s Grocery, so some black men took arms, there were some shots fired and it ended up that a white guy ended up getting shot.
They rounded up all the black men that they could in the town and put them in jail for a few days, and there was a black militia that actually came to Memphis jail to protect them. After they found out the white guy was going to live, they figured, okay, this is good, we’ll leave. When the black militia left, they went and got, again the two store owners and Thomas Moss. Took them out to a place called The Curve, which I’ve actually been there and it’s still got an eerie feeling to it. Nothing’s grown in that area. There’s no business and it’s still got a macabre feeling to it. Hearing about that and knowing that the men were upstanding men, she was like, “Hey, somebody’s got to do something about this.” She investigated that lynching and found out that they were a lot of the prominent people in town who were involved in the lynching.
She started to investigate other lynchings, so she was kind of America’s first investigative reporter, if you will. You didn’t have people that went out and challenged what was printed in the paper. She investigated over 200 lynchings in the South during those early … This was 1892 when it happened, so during that early timeframe, she did some investigations and found out that, wow, a lot of these accusations of rape didn’t actually happen, or sometimes it may have been consensual. She published one document on that during that timeframe and then later on published another document.
Taya Graham: How was her work on lynchings initially received? What kind of impact did it have when it was published?
Daniel Duster: It had a very dangerous effect for her in that she got threats routinely. She went out and bought firearms, so she believed in the right to carry a gun. She was like, “Hey, if I’m going to go down, somebody else is going to go down with me.” She had influence across the South, especially. When she wrote the last investigative article about the lynchings, she happened to be in New York at the time and it’s suspected that she, in publishing that article, she knew that all hell was going to break loose, so she decided not to be in town. The people in Memphis went and destroyed her newspaper. They said, “Hey, if whoever wrote this article comes back, we’re going to lynch them too.” She was directly impacted. Again, things that we don’t consider are the life threats, but also the financial impact of … She had a business that brought about income and that was destroyed.
She happened to be in New York at the time, then went to Chicago and met a guy by the name of Ferdinand Barnett who was a prominent lawyer in Chicago, and he was a lot to do with civil rights as well. He was a widower. His first wife was very educated and powerful woman and Ferdinand said that he wanted a fiery woman that he wanted to marry again, so when he met Ida, he was like, “Okay, you’re the one.” They met at the World’s Fair, which was in Chicago 1893, and Ida was wanting to boycott the World’s Fair because of the lack of presence of the negro in the fair. She and Frederick Douglass were at odds. Another thing that happens in history is that we kind of assume that the prominent leaders got along or had similar philosophies and in this instance, that was not the case. She and Frederick Douglass kind of like Malcolm and Martin, wanted freedom but willing to do different things in order to do it.
Frederick Douglass’ mindset was, if I deserve a loaf of bread and you have a loaf, if you give me half then that’s good, that’s progress. Ida was like, no I deserve a whole loaf of bread and you give me half, you still owe me another half. They went back and forth about how to approach the racism that was happening in the country at the time and whether to boycott the World’s Fair, whether to be at … Frederick was like, “Let’s have a positive presence,” and she was like, “No, let’s boycott and distribute pamphlets indicating that this is not fair and this is how the negro is treated in America.” She did a lot of things like that to bring to light what was happening in America. After [inaudible] she actually traveled to Europe to instigate boycotts against the U.S. At the time, again, the U.S. was the largest exporter of cotton, so she went to England and Scotland to really bring light to what was happening.
Again, what was happening with lynchings, it was really, in my estimation, America’s first form of domestic terrorism because it was about … During slavery, you can control black people, the negro through slavery. After slavery, there was no legal way to do that. How do you control somebody? With fear and intimidation. And that was what lynching was about, was fear and intimidation. That’s why it was always a public spectacle, hanging, sometimes dragging the victims through the streets, whether by horses or … Sending a message that, if you step out of line, this could happen to you too. Oftentimes, they’d take pictures of the lynchings, kind of like if you see somebody who goes on a fishing adventure and they got a big Florida marlin and they’re standing like, “Hey, look what I have here.” This is what they do with lynching victims.
You’d have crowds of tens, hundreds, even thousands that would witness lynchings and often it was a family event. There are several photographs with little girls and boys with their mothers and fathers witnessing the lynching. She took these pictures over to Europe and said, “Hey look, this is what’s happening. We need to boycott,” and so bringing shame to America, because America is founded on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and freedom and justice for all. She was like, “No, so the justice is not happening for the negro in America.” Those are some of the prominent things that launched her career, launched and forced it and gave her passion about justice and against lynching. Take a pause there and see if you have any other questions.
Taya Graham: Sure. As an educated black woman, as a successful black woman, wasn’t she under, essentially constant threat of death? I mean, her three friends were lynched, essentially because they were successful black businessmen.
Daniel Duster: Absolutely. That was, again, the challenge, so going back to her newspaper being destroyed, and then coming to Chicago. She did all of her activism, really, on her own. She got some financing from a few folks early on, but it was largely, that’s what she did because she had passion for it. Again, the danger behind it is that she didn’t return to the South for years, for decades, because of fear for what would happen. Those are, again, important things that happened. I was just talking to a group of young men today asking about … I was at a venue that happened to have a picture of Ida B. Wells in the background and I asked the same comparison. I was like, “What’s Rosa Parks known for?” It’s like, “Oh, starting the civil rights movement.” I talk about, I think America’s done a disservice to itself, to our people, by not talking openly about the atrocities that have happened in the country. We’ve got a barbaric, violent, sadistic past.
Taya Graham: Yes.
Daniel Duster: To acknowledge that and say, “Hey, look, we’re sorry for it,” and again, I think it’s natural for people to do so. If you were to say, “Hey, Dan Duster, write your biography,” there’s some things that if I didn’t like it, I may not include. Right?
Taya Graham: Right.
Daniel Duster: America’s done the same thing, and again, the history at that point was largely written by white men, and so not only were the atrocities that happened in America minimized, but the success and the courage of black people, and especially black women, were not going to be accounted for because that’s white man’s history.
Taya Graham: In her piece on lynch law, she mentions that most of the media outlets were owned and controlled by white Americans, like you said, history being written by white men. 100 years later, very little has changed. We have a few minority-owned media outlets, but the don’t have the far-reaching power of their white counterparts. The narrative is still controlled by white editors at white-owned stations, white-owned distribution channels. How important do you think it is that black people tell other black people’s stories? How important is it to have black journalists?
Daniel Duster: Both black journalists, and quality journalists, so that’s the other thing is to have quality reporting and a depiction of what’s happening, so again, the challenge in the U.S. is, you’ve got over 90% of the media owned by six companies. That’s going to have heavy influence. For there to be quality reporting, whether it’s a black owned media or one of the major stations to say, “Here’s what we’re going to report,” and give an angle that reflects the truth, or at least the truth that isn’t told by the other stories. As with the court, you can say there’s the truth and the whole truth. Sometimes they tell the truth, but it’s a portion of the truth, where the whole truth is going to give you the actual picture of what happens.
Taya Graham: Currently there is a war on media from our current presidential administration. How do you think Ida B. Wells would have responded to that?
Daniel Duster: Vehemently. I mean, Ida was a master at also using the media’s words, or back in her day, the racist white people’s words, against them because again, back in the 1890s, you still had a lot of the conflict with the U.S. expanding west and how the media depicted the Native American, or Natives as they prefer to be called at this point, and calling them barbaric and sadistic and saying, “Here’s what they’re doing,” which was fake news. What she did was take the language that the press was using at that time in describing Native Americans and said, “Well, if you’re saying that’s what Native Americans are doing and they’re barbaric, here’s what’s happening to the black man, and let’s compare this. If these are the same actions, it’s got to be called the same thing.”
Especially for the new administration, is that there has been such hypocrisy for so many things. She would do that and say, “Here’s what you said on this date.” A few media outlets do a good job of saying, “Here’s what you said and now here’s what you’re saying and it’s a lot different, so what do you truly mean? What are your beliefs, and what do you stand for?” She would absolutely be vocal about it and I think she would be masterful about using their words and their actions to say, “You’re being hypocritical, so we’ve got to hold you to the high standard that this office respectfully should do.”
Taya Graham: I think it’s really interesting that you’re talking about accountability in media, but I also think accountability with policing is really important too. You know the names Sean Bell, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, these are all people who died at the hands of police, innocent of any violent crime. How closely do you think these types of cases compare to the racial injustice that she wrote about so many years ago?
Daniel Duster: I’ve had a lot of discussions on that in that we talk about lynching and it being, at that time, a form of terrorism and used to intimidate black people, and so I think we’re at a huge challenge in our society to again, have open dialogue. Part of the dialogue includes talking about racial profiling, talking about fears, how to overcome fears. Then you’ve got so much animosity from the black community, and rightfully so, so much animosity from the black community right now, it’s a very difficult situation. Unless we’re able to have open dialogue about it, it’s going to be difficult. Now, how she would respond to it would be to have some of that open dialogue.
Talk about some of the challenging issues and be able to challenge people publicly and openly and say, “Hey look, here’s what you’re doing,” so both challenging media about how they portray it, but also challenging police to say, “We got to do something different,” is to have a different standard. Again, the challenge is, police are human. Some people are more afraid of large black men than the small white woman. Does that mean that a big black man deserves to die because somebody’s scared? Absolutely not, so to have that dialogue and say, “How can we do this?” To have more dialogue in the communities about …
Again Ida is, vehement of a fighter she was, she was also respectful, and so how do we initiate respect between those two, and again, unfortunately opposing forces right now, where the police are often seen as the enemy, versus if you ask … I remember decades ago asking … I’m blessed to have a number of friends and say, “How do you feel if the police come around?” My white friends would say, “I feel good. I feel safe.” Black folks would be like, “Oh man, something’s going to happen.” Changing that perception of one another needs to take place. Again, I think that she would be at the forefront of having that open dialogue, challenging the leadership in the country and on the police forces to be purposeful about making changes, not just saying, “Okay, things need to change,” and not having a plan to do it. Just say, “Okay, what are you going to do to make this change happen?”
Taya Graham: Right. If Ida B. Wells was here today, how do you think she would perceive the struggle of black Americans today? How would she view the progress? Do you think she’d be marching with Black Lives Matter activists?
Daniel Duster: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll share my perspective on Black Lives Matter is that it was started as a result of the killings, which some people may call lynchings, of black people. Hearing in the news about how some people feel that it’s a reverse racist organization and trying to cause problems, quite the opposite, it’s trying to tell the public, in especially naïve white America … Just a tidbit on that is, a lot of people who I say aren’t racist, they don’t have ill will towards black people, but the challenge is, if they don’t know that these horrible things are happening, then they can’t respond to it and say that something needs to change.
An example is, when I worked for a company eight years ago, I had a friend of mine who was with the company, and he worked in Tennessee and he was like, “Yeah, there’s still some places you couldn’t go without problems.” A white woman from the northeast was like, “What do you mean?” He was like, “I’m black. They’re not going to like me. I will be in danger.” She was like, “No, that doesn’t happen anymore.” A lot of people come from that perspective. They think that America is great and that there’s no racism and that there is no ill will against black people, so to raise that level of awareness is saying that, no, we are still regarded either as lesser people or being feared. We need to acknowledge that black lives matter, that our country is still doing a dastardly deed against black people, and it needs to be corrected. She would absolutely be part of that march.
Taya Graham: You mentioned that her family was born into slavery. Her father was a slave, her mother was a slave, and essentially since she was born in 1862, she was born into slavery as well. That’s during a time period where it was illegal to teach black slaves to read, but yet all the members of her family were literate. Education was obviously incredibly important. How important do you think it is now for our progress?
Daniel Duster: I think it’s incredibly important. There’s different types of education. The ability to read and write is essential. That’s the foundation of education. The ability to process that information and transition it to knowledge is important. Having people not only to be able to read, but to think and process is important, which ultimately leads to wisdom, which is making wise choices as a result of the knowledge that you have. Again, talking to … Part of what I do is talk to students. Everything’s not for everybody. In our family, education through college was normal. I was brainwashed as a child, starting from kindergarten, “Hey, what are you going to do after college?” It was like, “I don’t know,” but I knew I was going to college. There was not pressure for me to go to college, but it also was not an option. It was like, okay, go to grade school, go to high school, go to college, and I figure out, after I go through college, then I get a choice. Education from that formal standpoint is important to Ida B. Wells.
Just a real quick snippet is that Ida had four children and her youngest Alfreda is my grandmother. Alfreda had five children, and of those five children she had, there are 15 grandchildren. All five of Alfreda’s children not only went to college, but got advanced degrees, and all of the 15 grandchildren went to college and probably half of us, I’m not included in that half, have advanced degrees. My family’s always been a proponent of education, I always will be. That being said, is that there’s different types of education. There’s again, education from the book sense and knowing that, but also education about life and doing what’s right and fighting for what’s right.
Taya Graham: What part of her legacy do you want to carry forward? If there was any part of her legacy that you could pass on to this generation, what would be most important to you?
Daniel Duster: Let’s see, a couple of things. One is what I call having integrity. That’s definitely one of the traits. My father and I talked about what traits did she pass down? My father was never intentional about saying, “This is something that Ida B. Wells did, so here’s what you need to do,” but we probably had a conversation, I don’t know, when I was in my mid 30s or so, asking, “Hey, so what was passed down?” One, education; two, family; and that a parent needs to stay home and be responsible for the child’s education. No matter what school I went to, I was going to do well because my parents were going to make sure that I did well. The other thing is integrity and courage, and those go hand in hand in that integrity is doing the right thing. I learned my lessons about integrity, especially in college.
At home, you could leave stuff around and if it wasn’t yours you didn’t touch it. I didn’t realize that if I left stuff around the fraternity house, if it wasn’t mine, other people would touch it, or borrow it and not give it back. That’s one form of integrity. Integrity is, what I tell people is, knowing what’s right and doing what’s right, even if you don’t feel like it and even if nobody’s looking. I translate that to society as, hey if I know this is right, I need to do it. Hey, if nobody’s looking … Again, this is the problem with so many officers, that for people who don’t have integrity, once they get to a certain place, they look out for themselves instead of what’s best for most people. That’s lacking integrity.
The other part of integrity, and this is where courage comes into it, is what I call standing up, not being a guilty bystander. Again, I’ve talked about Ida B. Wells for over 25, almost 30 years now, and in … I used to always think, “Hey, what would have happened at a lynching …” Because lynchings were sometimes spontaneous, where something happened and there was a mob mentality and they got aggressive and somebody ended up being lynched, beaten, tortured, and killed. Sometimes it was an event where it was scheduled, hey, literally, we’re going to lynch this person on Saturday, this was an event. For the spontaneous ones especially, I wonder what would have happened if somebody had said, “Hey no, stop. This person has had enough.”
In 2005, the U.S. senate issued an apology for never passing any anti-lynching legislation. I was invited to that as a descendant of Ida B. Wells. The reason that’s important is that three times … For something to become a law, it needs to go through the house and the senate or vice versa, and be approved for it to be a law. Three times anti-lynching legislation made it through the house and all three times the senate did not approve it. They issued an apology in 2005 for never having done that. I met James Cameron, who’s a namesake to the movie director. He’s, at the time America’s oldest known lynching victim. In 1930, as a teenager, he was with a few other folks and then he left, and then they ended up committing a crime. The three of them were jailed and then they were taken from their jail. The first two separately, one was taken from his jail, beaten, tortured, and killed, so officially lynched. Second person, same thing happened.
Then James was taken from his cell and he was beaten, tortured, and then allegedly one person in the crowd screamed loud enough, “Hey, stop. Stop! This man is innocent.” So they released him. They put him back in jail. That was in 1930. He lived for another almost, I guess, 80 years. I met him in 2005, I think he passed in 2009. He went on to found the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee and a number of other wonderful things. That incident tells me, again, for lynching to happen, you think about for a sports team, why does a team have home field advantage? It’s because of the crowd, because of that energy that you get. For lynchings, I think a lot of them got worse and ended up being a lynching instead of a confrontation because that energy supported what they were doing. You start to beat them and then, okay, mob mentality kicks in and they ended up killing people instead of just what may have been a fist fight.
My thing is that if you stand around and watch a lynching and don’t do anything to say stop, or walk away, or this is some behavior that should not happen, you are a guilty bystander. Again, debatable about how we see lynchings now, we may not see lynchings, but we still see a number of injustices. Whether those injustices are bullying at school, bullying in the workplace, laughing at a racist or sexist joke, that’s sporting that behavior. You’re being a guilty bystander. The ability to stand up and say, “No, this is not right. I can’t support that.” You don’t have to put yourself in harm’s way, but to let people know that this action is not acceptable. To me that’s minimally what we need to do in our society. That’s, I think, part of the problem in our communities is there’s less accountability in the community as well, as far as what people do.
In my community, I wanted to do certain things. I wasn’t going to be a bad kid, but you know, my neighborhood wouldn’t allow it because I had Ms. Russell, Ms. Brown, Ms. Ratliff, Ms. Shavers, Ms. Page, who would, if I’m doing something bad, they’d say stop and they’d let my parents know. The ability to stand up for justice, whether it’s in your communities, your workplace, your schools, is one of the things that was passed down to me. I call myself … I’ve done some activist things in supporting others, so those are some things that were passed down. I would say the care for family, education, integrity, and courage are the four prominent things that she passed down.
Taya Graham: That’s an incredible story, really powerful, on how one voice was able to stop a lynching. I think that’s a really powerful lesson there for all of us to take forward. I wanted to ask you a question about the 151st birthday celebration in her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi. What’s going to happen?
Daniel Duster: Let’s see, this will be … She was born in ’62, so this is 57, I don’t know. I’m getting my numbers … I’ve gone every year. They’ve had it every year for maybe the past … Since ’98 or so, and I’ve gone almost every year. It’s a very nice celebration. Again, she’s from Holly Springs, so they’ve got a celebration at the home she grew up in. It’s now a museum so it’s open to the public, Ida B. Wells museum. It’s powerful. On Friday they have a lot of youth who perform different skits or plays, then some adults who’ll have music and really celebrate. Then on Saturday they organize a tour of … They’ve had different tours between Holly Springs and Memphis, so they have the coach bus that takes a tour of the different areas and they do different things every year.
Then, Saturday there’s a banquet where they honor Ida B. Wells, and for the past, oh this is year number six, our family gives scholarships to students at Russ College, that’s where Ida went, and so we have criteria that leaders in the community, doing well with education, and making a positive difference on campus and/or at the community at large. It’s a great ceremony. It’s $1,000, and the tuition at Russ is about $6,000, so $1,000 off of that makes a pretty big difference.
Taya Graham: Absolutely.
Daniel Duster: Yeah, so it’s a nice ceremony throughout the whole weekend.
Taya Graham: I heard that there is a restaurant in Baltimore opening up to honor her career in journalism. Will you come visit?
Daniel Duster: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve been in dialogue and look forward to lending my support as much as I can. I appreciate the fact that there’s a renewed interest in general about Ida B. Wells and for them to honor her is an absolute delight, so I fully support what they are doing to make that happen.
Taya Graham: I want to thank my guest Daniel Duster for joining us with the stories of his courageous ancestor. I’m your host Taya Graham. Thank you for celebrating the groundbreaking journalist Ida B. Wells.