BRONZEVILLE — For Ephelia Thomas, Wednesday was a homecoming.
The 83-year-old grandmother once lived in the Ida B. Wells Homes in Bronzeville. She raised her children there. She can still recall the moments when her community rallied around her in times of distress.
So she was overcome with emotion as she returned to the boulevard at 37th Street and Langley Avenue for the unveiling of a monument honoring the civil rights and journalism icon, once again being amongst the community that worked for 13 years to make the towering tribute a reality.
“All the people you see here are family,” Thomas said. “This happened because we were determined to make it happen.”
“Light of Truth” was created by world-renowned sculptor Richard Hunt. The 20-foot-tall structure bears images and quotes from the suffragette, and stands on the site of the Ida B. Wells Homes, which were demolished in 2011, a few blocks from where Wells lived most of her life.
Siblings Michelle Duster and Daniel Duster spent years working on the project honoring their great-grandmother. The Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee — along with local officials like Ald. Sophia King (4th) and former Ald. Shirley Newsome — raised $300,000 for the project, which coincided with other efforts to honor Wells, including renaming Congress Parkway in 2019.
“I’m so happy that Richard Hunt created an amazing piece of artwork in our community in tribute to one of the leaders of our country, and it’s amazing to see the community come out to see it,” Michelle Duster said. “Ida represented the community, and it means a lot to have the community embrace this.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, author Jacqueline Woodsen and New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones were among those paying homage during a dedication ceremony at the Oakwood Center, 3825 S. Vincennes Ave.
“In the name of Ida B Wells and so many others, the fight must continue,” Lightfoot said. “We must say her name and the names of every other person who has made an impact, profoundly on the history of Chicago, particularly Black and Brown residents. Our obligation is to make sure we live up to the legacy of Ida B. Wells. We owe that to her.”
The monument’s completion comes as cities throughout the country are grappling with who and how they honor historic figures, particularly those who oppressed Black, Indigenous and other nonwhite people. Hannah-Jones, who spearheaded “The 1619 Project,” urged people to “fill the empty spaces left behind with true Americans who actually fought for the ideas of liberty and freedom.”
On the West Side, a young students spent three years pushing the Chicago Park District to rename their local park for abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass, and not for the senator who defended states’ rights to uphold slavery. That effort helped establish a new process for the park district to review and potentially change the names of other parks throughout the city.
After a Chicago Sun-Times review found 30 schools are named after slaveholders, Chicago Public Schools launched a new review process for changing them. In March, a Lakeview elementary school changed its name to Harriet Tubman IB World School, ditching the longtime name in honor of a Swiss scientist who defended slavery.
In Rogers Park, neighbors are considering what to do with a plaque that commemorates how white settlers grabbed Indigenous people’s land which eventually became Chicago.
After a lengthy battle, the City Council voted Friday to rename Lake Shore Drive as Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive, honoring the city’s first non-indigenous settler.
After protesters and police clashed last summer at Columbus statue in Grant Park, the city launched a committee that identified 41 problematic statues in the city that could be removed. But their work largely has been behind closed doors.
Even with “Light of Truth,” there are few such honors specifically for Black women throughout the city. Another notable one includes the statue for poet and author Gwendolyn Brooks in Brooks Park, completed in 2018.
“What’s troubling in this country is the extent to which we honor a small segment of our population — white men who were slaveholders. Washington Park, Jackson Park…they’re named after presidents for sure, but slaveholding presidents,” Preckwinkle said. “So I’m really grateful to be part of the celebration that lifts up a fighter for justice. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and some of those giants were women.”
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