Michelle Duster and Ida B. Wells conclude Black History Month program


by Amelia Schafer, News Editor

Author Michelle Duster encouraged students to not set limits for themselves and discussed the life and legacy of her great-grandmother, journalist Ida B. Wells, for Simpson College’s Black History Month program, on Thursday, Feb. 25. 

Duster’s new book, “Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life & Legacy of Ida B. Wells,”  details the life and legacy of Duster’s Pulitzer prize-winning great-grandmother. 

Born in 1862 into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells grew up through the reconstructive period after the Civil War. 

“She grew up pretty much through the reconstruction period of our country’s history, which was after the Civil War between 1865 and 1877,” Duster said. “And so she had the opportunity to become formally educated, she was among the first generation to have that opportunity because it had been illegal for enslaved people to learn how to read and write.” 

At 16-years-old, Wells lost both of her parents to yellow fever. Wells then moved to Memphis, Tenn, where after an incident on the Chesapeake Ohio Southwestern railroad, she became dedicated to a lifelong career in activism. 

“She was asked to move to the colored car, she refused, put up a physical fight, and was physically removed from the train,” Duster said. “She decided to sue the railroad, on the basis of the train cars being separate and unequal, she originally won the lawsuit, but then it was overturned two and a half years later by the Senate Tennessee Supreme Court.”

The loss was a big blow to Wells, causing her to lose faith in the law, but it sparked a desire for Wells to expose these inequalities and injustices. 

“She lost faith in the idea that Black people would be protected by the law,” Duster said. “She happened to have started writing, while she was to change she was writing on the side for church newsletters and things through and she kept.” 

Wells wrote, just like Duster writes now. Going on to expose the atrocities of lynching. 

“She started what is called data journalism, where she started writing names, dates, locations excuses that were being used to justify lynching this brutal lawlessness that was taking place,” Duster said. “And that changed the whole trajectory of her life because her life was threatened and her printing press was destroyed. And she was exiled from the South.” 

Duster discussed her great-grandmother’s accomplishments in the suffragette movement, the anti-lynching movement and founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

“She was a community organizer,” Duster said. “She did work that now is considered to be social work at the time it didn’t have that title, and she also worked when it came to fair housing. So she did all of these things in one lifetime, which sounds overwhelming, but somehow she managed to do it all plus.”

Over the past 90 years, Duster’s family has been committed to upholding Wells’ legacy by keeping her memory active and telling her story. 

“The values that were passed down in our families specifically were to educate ourselves to stand up for our rights to believe that our voices important to always believe that we deserve the best and that we stay focused on our goals not get distracted by nonsense, and to not have anybody tell us what we can’t do and don’t set limits for ourselves,” Duster said. 

Wrapping up the lecture, Duster described the drive and passion that her great-grandmother possessed. 

“She lived a life on her own terms,” Duster said. “She stood up for what she believed in. And she didn’t regret anything. And I think that’s a great way to, to, you know, at the end of your life if that’s how you feel, then that’s a wonderful life well lived.”