The great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, one of the most lauded pioneers in civil rights and suffragist history, is raising her voice about racial inequality during Black History Month.
Michelle Duster has written "Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells,” a historical look at a Black woman born into slavery who helped change the country in recognizing the rights of minorities, women and the poor.
“I was always taught that she was extremely opinionated," she told Inside Edition Digital. "She was very outspoken. She was uncompromising. She had very strong ideas of what was right and what was wrong, and stuck by those no matter what.”
Wells was many things: a crusading journalist, a fighter for women getting the right to vote and the contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. She refused to move from a whites-only railroad car in 1883 and bit the hand of the conductor who tried to pull her out of her seat.
More than a century ago, the FBI called her a "dangerous Negro agitator" and opened a file on her, noting "she has addressed meetings of colored people and endeavored to impress upon them that they are a downtrodden race and that now is the time for them to demand and secure their proper position in the world."
Duster finds that somewhat amusing. "She was around 5-feet-tall, and on the smaller side when it came to stature." Duster said. "So it is interesting that somebody that physically small could be considered so dangerous that the FBI itself surveilled her and deemed her a 'dangerous Negro agitator.'"
Born into slavery in 1862, in Mississippi, and orphaned at age 16. She took care of her five younger siblings after her mother died, rather than see them separated and shipped off to relatives. Eventually, she moved to Tennessee.
"My great-grandmother started her career as a teacher, and she was living in Memphis when, unfortunately, three of her friends were killed," Duster said. "They were lynched because they owned a successful grocery store. The owner of the white-owned grocery store decided to eliminate the competition," and helped get them killed, she said.
"That made my great-grandmother aware that lynching was being used as a form of domestic terrorism against the Black community, and she wanted the whole world to know what was going on," Duster said. "She did everything she could when it came to writing and speaking to help people understand the realities of lynching."
Wells' work as an outspoken journalist was recognized last year, with a Pulitzer citation "for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching. The citation comes with a bequest by the Pulitzer Prize Board of at least $50,000 in support of her mission," the board announced in 2020.
"The work that she did is still being continued today with several different civil rights activists and different movements that are taking place today, including the Black Lives Matter movement," her great-granddaughter said.
Her book, Duster said, is intended "to give people a sense of how they as individuals can make a difference in this world. My great-grandmother used her voice as a journalist to expose inequality and injustice. She organized with other people, creating organizations. She encouraged protest. She encouraged boycotts ... people can still do that today."