| Memphis Commercial Appeal
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – By 2021, Memphis could have its own statue of Ida B. Wells, the African American civil rights advocate and journalist who fought against racism, segregation and lynching.
She left Memphis in 1892, forced to stay away from the city after threats were made on her life and her office was destroyed.
Now, the Memphis Memorial Committee, in partnership with the Neshoba Community Resource Center, is seeking to – in a way – bring Wells back to the city where she taught school and then co-owned and wrote for the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper.
In 1892, after three friends of hers were lynched, she began to document lynchings in the United States.
That didn’t sit well with the white power structure in Memphis, who destroyed her office and forced her to relocate, ultimately to Chicago.
One of the loudest voices speaking out against Wells in Memphis was Edward Ward Carmack, editor of the Memphis Commercial, the predecessor of The Commercial Appeal. He demanded that white citizens retaliate against “the black wench” for her writings against the lynchings.
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She only spent 16 years in Memphis, but her legacy remains, said Dr. LaSimba Gray Jr.
“16 years here (in Memphis),” Gray said. “She was a school teacher, a publisher, a journalist, a civil rights advocate, a suffragist. If we had 10 more women like Ida B. Wells we could change the world.”
Gray said the idea for a statue came about through a conversation between him and educator, author and civil rights activist Miriam DeCosta-Willis.
The two agreed that a memorial to Wells in Memphis was long overdue.
That was in December 2019. In July 2019, they visited with Larry and Andrea Lugar of the Lugar Bronze Foundry in Eads, Tennessee. The Lugars “blew them away” by presenting them with a miniature of a proposed statue, Gray said.
The plan is to raise $200,000 to purchase and install the statue. The funds will also create a memorial area surrounding the statue. Any extra funds will go to the Ida B. Wells Foundation of Chicago.
Currently, the group has conceptual approval from the City of Memphis and will seek final approval once the details are confirmed to install the statue on Beale Street, Gray said.
Beale and Fourth is the perfect location for the statue, Gray said, since that will be right by where Wells once had a press and ran a newspaper out of Beale Street Baptist Church.
Dr. David Acey Sr., another member of the Memphis Memorial Committee, said at a time when Confederate statues are coming down, it’s important to put other statues up.
When people see the statue of Wells on Beale Street they will see “a great journalist who stood against the odds,” Acey said.
“To be here in Memphis is a great tribute to her work, her efforts, her commitment and unwavering mission to bringing some light on the lynchings and her great journalistic abilities to write and keep going,” Acey said. “It’s time to focus on great African American women in Memphis and to erect a bronze statue for Ida B. Wells is so, I think, appropriate and worthy. It will do a lot for Memphis.”
There will be informational materials and programs about her legacy, Gray said, hopefully inspiring people to change society as she sought to change it. The plan is to install the statue on Wells’ birthday, July 16.
“The interest has just been amazing to me how people have come together, black and white, Republicans and Democrats, people of goodwill who see the value of recognizing what Ida B. Wells did for Memphis,” Gray said.
Follow reporter Katherine Burgess on Twitter: @kathsburgess.
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