By Dr. Peggy Griffin
How does North Shore Baptist Church relate to Ida B. Wells Drive? The recent naming of a Chicago street for Ida B. Wells sent me to the archives. My long- term interest in the chivalry of Ida B. Wells Barnett, and also my acquaintance with some members of her family drew from my bookshelf a copy of Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Her writing reveals the fact that her early history was intertwined with the American Baptist Home Mission Society.
I am proud to say that my copy of the autobiography was personally autographed by her daughter, Dr. Alfreda M. Duster on January 19, 1973. I was fortunate to know both of her daughters, Alfreda M. Barnett Duster and Ida B. Barnett, as well as her grandson, Atty. Benjamin Duster. I also take pride in the history of our church and our denomination, which have always had strong mission programs as well as advocacy for civil rights. I will here relay some facts about the life of Ida B. Wells that reveal the connection.
Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, educator, and early civil rights leader who was born into enslavement in Holly Springs Mississippi in 1862. Her parents were married during slavery, with her father working in the carpenter’s trade and her mother working as a cook. They were emancipated at the end of the Civil War.
Yellow Fever took the lives of Ida’s parents and her youngest sibling when she was only sixteen. Illness had earlier claimed the lives of two of the children. Ida had received enough education to secure a teaching position to support her five siblings, with the help of her grandmother. Ida B. Wells later moved to Memphis to earn higher wages.
Over 70 years before Rosa Parks refused to abide by segregationist laws in Montgomery, Alabama, Ida B. Wells made a similar stand in a Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern railroad car. She refused to move to the “colored” section of the train when a white conductor ordered her to do so under the segregationist laws. She was forcefully removed from the train, and she sued the company for her ill treatment. One of her quotations challenges us today, “ One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
She started writing for church publications. Her first paid writing position was as a staff member of the American Baptist. She later became a co-owner of Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Her writings exposed lynching and captured a national and international reading audience. Her paper enraged the segregationists, who lynched some of her friends, burned down her press, and put a price on her life.
She migrated to Chicago and continued her activist lifestyle. She married Atty. Ferdinand L. Barnett and had a family. While rearing her children, she continued to write and speak out on civil rights and women’s rights. Her legacy lives and reminds us as Christians to stand for the cause of justice and righteousness.