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Taking Control of Our Narrative

Excerpt from Ida B. the Queen:
The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells

In 2020, the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded a Special Citation to Ida B. Wells “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” Michelle Duster, one of Ida B. Wells’ 18 great grandchildren, has written a second book about the journalist, Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells.

Ms. Duster is a writer, speaker, professor, and champion of racial and gender equity. In the last dozen years, she has written, edited, or contributed to 11 books. She cowrote the popular children’s history book Tate and His Historic Dream, coedited Shifts: An Anthology of Women’s Growth through Change and Michelle Obama’s Impact on African American Women and Girls, and edited two books that include the writings of her great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells.
When Ida wrote about the realities of her friends being lynched, she was countering false narratives about Black people. She took control of the narrative and presented the Black perspective to counter propaganda that framed Black people as biologically or sociologically inferior, dangerous, and violent.

The prevailing narrative at the time was that Black men were sexual predators who targeted white women and therefore deserved to die in a most brutal way. Other victims of lynching had been framed as dangers to the social order, specifically threatening to white people, or were robbers. Horrific acts against Black people were normalized over time: torture, collecting their teeth and bones as souvenirs, or even burning them alive for the enjoyment of spectators.

Ida investigated these atrocities with the goal of humanizing their victims. Time and time again, she found that the victims were misidentified scapegoats targeted to be punished for a crime that was committed by someone else or swept up in an act of terror intended to institute social control over unwanted Black communities and neighbors. When Ida wrote her articles in the Memphis Free Speech about the lynching of [her friends], she highlighted how the murders’ violence against any Black person, at any time, kept the surrounding community terrorized and economically disenfranchised for a generation.

Many people have followed Ida’s example of taking control of disputed history — most often shaped by the wealthy and powerful and telling those stories through the lens of Black people’s perspective. From the first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, started in 1827, to Frederick Douglass establishing The North Star newspaper in 1847, to John H. Johnson founding the Johnson Publishing Company in 1942 (the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines), Black people have had to write, create, and own dozens of other media outlets to have their own stories heard.

Appointment Virtual Viewing: Ida B. Wells Discussions
Center for Brooklyn History

Tuesday, March 23: This three-part series looks at the long history of Black-led protest in Brooklyn. Act One shines a spotlight on both well-known and lesser-known Black women leaders who fought for gender and racial equity during the decades surrounding the Civil War. From suffragists and abolitionists Maritcha Reymond Lyons, Elizabeth A. Gloucester, Susan Smith McKinney Steward, and Sarah Garnet, to anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, experts and historians highlight the often hidden stories of women who effected change. The series launches this Tuesday with a discussion on the life of Ida B. Wells. Jami Floyd, Senior Editor for Race & Justice Unit at New York Public Radio and the Legal Editor in the WNYC Newsroom, moderates this conversation with historian Prithi Kanakamedala, curator of the exhibition “Brooklyn Abolitionists: In Pursuit of Freedom” at the former Brooklyn Historical Society, and Michelle Duster, Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter and author of the new book Ida B. The Queen, The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells.

Tuesday, March 30: The Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association (BADA) and Women of Dartmouth (WD) will converse with Michelle Duster ’85. Prof. Lisa Ellis ‘88 will guide the discussion with Michelle as we discuss her book and her great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells.

Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, stands on the steps of her ancestor’s Chicago, Illinois house. Ms. Duster authored two books about Ida B. Wells.

Mary Louise Kelly, All Things Considered, NPR: What do you think Ida B. Wells would have made of this past year – a year that has obviously seen huge protests over racial justice, which has also seen the first Black woman elected vice president of the United States?

Michelle Duster: Well, during my great-grandmother’s lifetime, she was a suffragist, so she was very involved in fighting for women to have the right to vote. She also ran for state Senate in 1930. Considering the fact that she felt that she had the right to not only vote but also run for elected office, I think she would be both proud that we’ve made this achievement with a Black and Asian female vice president. But I really wonder some – if she would wonder why it took so long from her perspective because she was kind of impatient.


Nikole Hannah-Jones, Topher Sanders and Ron Nixon.

The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting was founded by (left to right) Brooklyn-based Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times, Topher Sanders who covers race and the justice system for Pro Publica and Ron Nixon, global investigative reporter, Associated Press.
The Society invites journalists of all skill levels to attend various virtual investigative workshops. Some of the most accomplished journalists in the field share their expertise.

“Our Namesake”
Ida B. Wells was a pioneering black journalist and an activist for women’s rights and the suffrage movement. She was also one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Miss. While working as a teacher in Memphis, she began writing a column for The Living Way, a weekly newspaper, under the pen name “Iola.” Her writings for the newspaper on race injustices earned her a national reputation. She later became editor and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.

But Wells began her career as an investigative journalist after three friends were lynched by a white mob. The three men had opened a grocery store that competed with a white-owned shop in the city. Angered by the success of the Black business, a group of white residents attacked the store. During the attack, three white men were shot and injured.
The Black grocers were arrested, but lynched by a mob before they could stand trial.

The death of her friends inspired Wells to begin documenting the widespread practice of lynching, particularly the lynching of Black men, in the United States during the 1890s. Compiling statistics from white newspapers… she found Black men and women were frequently lynched for failing to pay debts, for perceived disrespect of white people, for competing with white people economically and, at times, for consensual relationships with white people.

Wells incurred the wrath of white residents in Memphis when she wrote an editorial that suggested many of the justifications for lynchings – attacks on white women by Black men – were actually consensual liaisons. An angry mob, destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight while Wells was away on a trip.

Wells later moved to Chicago and married Ferdinand Barnett, an attorney and editor of a Black newspaper, the Chicago Conservator, the city’s first African-American newspaper. She continued to investigate lynching and toured Europe to raise awareness about the killings of Black Americans.

Two of her best-known works are Southern Horrors published in 1892, and A Red Record, published in 1895. A third work, Mob Rule in New Orleans, told the story of Robert Charles, an African American whose death in July 1900 sparked the famous New Orleans race riots.

For information on The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting Fellowship Program, yearlong, intensive, no-cost training program that will bring fellows to New York City to learn in-depth investigative reporting techniques from some of the most accomplished journalists in the field, visit,

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