In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode, we spoke with Michelle Duster, author of Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells, a biography of one of the most influential Black women journalists, suffragettes, and activists in the history of America—also known to Duster as her great-grandmother.
“There’s a lot of information I don’t know about my great-grandmother,” says Michelle Duster, “and I never will.” The author and professor, who has written and edited eleven books, expressed some frustration in writing about her great-grandmother, civil rights icon Ida B. Wells. “I think that my great-grandmother and my grandmother, who was her youngest daughter, were from the generation that felt that they were going to take certain things to their grave.” That includes even the small things one may be curious to know about their relatives, such as Ida’s favorite song, which she wishes she knew. “Because I am related to her, maybe I have a different way of viewing her and connecting with her,” she says.
Growing up, Duster was taught that her great-grandmother was a no-nonsense journalist and activist: “She fought for freedom and equality, for justice and equality. She was uncompromising, had a very strong personality. And she was not intimidated by anybody.” Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Ida B. Wells began her career as a teacher before moving into journalism. “Things changed when she had three friends who were lynched,” explains Duster, “and she realized that they were not guilty of any kind of crimes. So she decided to start investigating other lynchings to see how many other innocent people were being killed under the guise of protecting white women.” In her investigations, Wells conducted interviews and collected names, dates, locations, and other information to show that lynching was being used as a form of domestic terrorism.
“As a result of her exposing the truth about what was going on regarding lynching, her life was threatened. Her printing press was destroyed. She was exiled from the south.”
Wells settled in Chicago and continued to write about the atrocities of lynching and published several pamphlets. She also went on a UK speaking tour, co-founded several organizations including the NAACP, and was a fervent participator in the women’s suffrage movement. She even ran for State Senate in Illinois, which Duster believes speaks to her great-grandmother’s passion and persistence in the fight for the rights and civil liberties of all Black Americans. “Here she was, a Black woman just on the heels of women in general getting the right to vote, and she’s going to actually run for office,” Duster lays out. “Who knows if she thought she would win or not. But just the fact that she decided to push the envelope from being a voter to being a candidate says so much.”
In Ida B. The Queen, Duster makes it her mission to keep Wells’s story alive by exploring not only her life and those of her peers, but also the relationship between Wells’s work at the turn of the 20th century to those of newer activists today: “Without advocacy, a lot of the stories of my great-grandmother, her contemporaries, people who came before and after her would be lost and they would be marginalized. And I am determined to make sure that that doesn’t happen anymore, that the contributions that African-Americans, women, and African-American women made to this country are front-and-center of our history and in the way that the story of this country is told.”