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Michelle Duster Reflects On Life Of Great Grandmother Ida B. Wells In New Biography


Ida B. Wells was many things - journalist, civil rights leader, mother, dangerous Negro agitator. That last one is courtesy of the FBI. The bureau created a file on Wells more than a century ago. It noted that she was a good public speaker and that, quote, "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," end quote.

Well, Michelle Duster is author of a new book on Wells. It is titled "Ida B. The Queen." And that's a subject on which Duster is not completely objective because she is also the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells. She's on the line now from Chicago.

Michelle Duster, welcome.

MICHELLE DUSTER: Thanks for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So your great-grandmom (ph) - I have seen her described as the most famous Black woman in the whole United States during her lifetime. For people listening who may not be familiar yet with her story, just give us a little bit of a sense of why.

DUSTER: Well, my great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells, was a journalist, a suffragist, a civil rights activist, a social worker. She was one of the founders of the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. She also founded the Negro Fellowship League, so she was involved in a lot of different movements and initiatives during her time.

KELLY: And I want to go back to the beginning because her childhood is as remarkable in some ways as the woman she grew up to be. She was born into slavery. This was 1862, Holly Springs, Miss. And 1862 - that was right in the middle of the Civil War.

DUSTER: Right, exactly. She was born at a pivotal time in our country's history. So she was born into slavery, but she actually grew up during Reconstruction. She grew up during a time of hope and progress. And I think that's significant as far as what shaped her.

KELLY: And talk about overcoming obstacles. She was orphaned at age 16. She had five younger siblings. And suddenly - 16, so still a child herself - she had to figure out how to take care of and raise all of her sisters and brothers. I can't imagine.

DUSTER: Well, she actually made that choice because friends of her father in particular who were masons had already come up with a plan to separate the children and have them live within different families. And Ida herself protested that and convinced them all that she could take care of her siblings. I think she was influenced by the fact that her mother had been sold when she was enslaved from Virginia to Mississippi and never saw her parents and most of her siblings ever again. And so I think Ida wanted to make sure that her family stayed together - she and her siblings stayed together.

KELLY: And how did she begin trying to earn a living and earn enough money to take care of this family that she was suddenly leading?

DUSTER: Well, my great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells, had the opportunity to take a teaching exam. Things were a lot different then than they are now. And I mean, there was a dearth of teachers. There was a lot of need for people to teach in rural areas. And she was able to take a teaching exam, pass it and was able to get a teaching job in rural Mississippi.

KELLY: And then how did she parlay that, becoming a teacher while still a teenager, into becoming this crusading journalist who she grew up to be?

DUSTER: Well, after working in Mississippi for a couple of years, she ended up moving to Memphis. And while she was teaching, she became involved in what were called lyceums at that time, which are kind of like social clubs. So they were reading, doing readings and plays and poetry and things like that. She started writing for the newsletter, and she ended up becoming a part owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech.

KELLY: What do you think Ida B. Wells would have made of this past year - a year that has obviously seen huge protests over racial justice, which has also seen the first Black woman elected vice president of the United States?

DUSTER: Well, during my great-grandmother's lifetime, she, you know, was a suffragist, so she was very involved in fighting for women to have the right to vote. She also ran for state Senate in 1930. So considering the fact that she felt that she had the right to not only vote but also run for elected office, I think she would be both proud that we've made this achievement with a Black and Asian female vice president. But I really wonder some - if she would wonder why it took so long from her perspective because she was kind of impatient.

KELLY: That is Michelle Duster, author of a new book about her great-grandmother. The title is "Ida B. The Queen: The Extraordinary Life And Legacy Of Ida B. Wells."

Thank you.

DUSTER: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.