Episode 013: Up With Ida; A Monumental Teach-In for Ida B. Wells at the University of Mississippi
Image of Ida B. Wells graciously provided by the Ida B. Wells Family Archives
Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, an educator, a suffragist, a truth teller. She was born in Holly Spring, Mississippi in 1862. As an African American woman, she moved to Memphis and then Chicago, as she built a national reputation for her civil rights work. She reported and revealed the horrors of lynching in pamphlets and publications including Southern Horrors and The Red Record. Today, her great-granddaughter, author Michelle Duster, carries on her legacy. She has retraced Wells’ footsteps in the pursuit of justice, including leading efforts in the city of Chicago to dedicate the new Ida B. Wells Drive and to fundraise for a monument to her late great-grandmother in the city’s Bronzeville section.
This week, Duster travels to the University of Mississippi, where scholars and students have organized the Ida B Wells Teach In: A Monument to Justice. We speak with Duster, and two of the organizers, History Professor Garrett Felber and graduate student Beth Kruse. The event was planned in response to an effort to rename the University’s journalism school after Ida B. Wells. It also occurs in the face of a struggle to remove a confederate monument from the heart of campus, all a part of ongoing efforts to seek what they highlight as “reparative justice” for the campus, sparked by Wells’ memory.
This season of Monument Lab, all our conversations are transcribed and posted on our website, thanks to our partners at Rev.com who are supporting us with on-demand transcripts. Anyone can use Rev to transcribe interviews, first drafts, or almost anything recorded at just $1/minute.
Paul Farber (Host): Michelle Duster, Garrett Felber, and Beth Kruse, welcome to Monument Lab.
Garrett Felber: Thank you.
Michelle Duster: Thanks for having me.
Farber: Michelle, you're headed to the University of Mississippi for a teach-in named for your great grandmother, Ida B Wells. She was born near the campus in 1862 during the Civil War. From your perspective, can you describe her early life in Mississippi?
Duster: From what I've learned, she was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi which is about 30 minutes or so east of Oxford and from what I understand, during the Civil War, Holly Springs changed hands between the Confederacy and the Union officers several times and it was quite chaotic. The fact that it was considered an urban area for that time also made it a little bit more progressive than some other parts of Mississippi.
Farber: Eventually she moved on to Memphis and Chicago. In your family stories, have you discussed the reasons why she left Mississippi?
Duster: She left Mississippi in order to get a teaching job in Memphis, which was higher paying than what she was making in Holly Springs. She had been working in the Holly Springs area for a couple of years as a teacher commuting back and forth between Holly Springs and I'm not sure which rural area she was teaching in but from what I've gathered, her grandmother passed away and her grandmother had been helping her take care of her five younger siblings and after a couple of years of that grueling schedule she just got burned out. Also her aunt, who lived in Memphis, needed help because she was a widow. Her husband had died in the Yellow Fever epidemic also and she had two children and so her aunt asked her if she could move up to Memphis so that basically the two women could help each other and also I guess the selling point for Ida was that she would be able to make more money as a teacher. There were just a few converging factors that made it a reasonable decision for Ida to move. She moved up to Memphis with her two sisters and then I guess her two brothers stayed back in the Holly Springs area and then her other sister went with another family because there were a total of five of her younger siblings. Basically her family got split up at that point.
Farber: At what point in your own history, Michelle, did you feel that you were tapped to honor and pursue the legacy of your great grandmother?
Duster: I would say in fairly recent years. I felt up until maybe five years ago or so that it was pretty much a family effort, especially with my father's generation [who] was very involved but I'm sure everybody's family, as the older generation starts passing away, then all of the sudden you find yourself in a situation where you're kind of like the elder. [Laughs.] I think that's kind of what's happened. My father passed away in 2013 and his brother passed away in 2011 and so when they were still here they were very involved and I was kind of more in the background. Especially after my father passed away, he and I were working together on a committee here in Chicago for a monument to honor Ida. After he passed away, then I kind of felt like, "Wow, I'm the only one here," because he and I were both on the committee. We have other family members in Chicago but my father and I were the ones on the committee and the most involved in that whole effort. Since I was the only one who really had the information and had been involved for so many years on that project, then that was when I felt like the transition kind of happened where I am the one that's left with the great majority of the background and the information. Even when it came to our family has a small family foundation and my father and uncles were the ones kind of keeping things going. My father was the treasurer and he and I started working closely together because I wanted to learn what was going on. I was learning a lot from him and so, again, after he passed away, I was the only one who had all of the information out of everybody in my family because I had been working side by side with him. That's kind of when it hit me that I'm the one.
Farber: You mentioned the information about your great grandmother, Ida B Wells. Every family has different ways that they pass down this information. Sometimes it's in the stories that elders tell later generations and other times it's in artifacts or heirlooms. Where and how did the stories of your great grandmother exist and how did you encounter them?
Duster: We all grew up knowing that we were related to Ida B Wells, meaning my brothers and my cousins and I. There are a total of ... My grandmother had 15 grandchildren so I have 13 ... two brothers and then however many cousins. Unfortunately two of my cousins are deceased so there are now a total of 13 of us who are descendants of Alfreda who's Ida's youngest daughter. As an adult, I met the descendants of Ida's oldest son. I never knew them when I was growing up but I've gotten to know some of them. I still haven't met everybody. The only way I learned anything about my great grandmother was through my grandmother, who was her youngest daughter. The thing is that my grandmother died when I was in college. I was still a teenager and so all of the information that I learned about my great-grandmother I guess information that my grandmother felt was appropriate for a child to know. She told us all that her mother was a civil rights activist, she was a journalist, that she used journalism as a way to fight for justice. We knew she was an investigative journalist but as far as the extent of the brutality regarding lynching and some of the death threats and things like that that my great-grandmother faced, my grandmother didn't talk about that a lot and when I think back on that, to me that makes sense because who's going to tell that kind of stuff to a seven or eight-year-old? I really think that a lot of the information that I was told was keeping in mind just trying to shield us from that level of trauma so it was kind of glossed over. We don't have a lot of artifacts. We don't have jewelry or clothing or things like that that maybe I think a lot of people we live in a museum or something but we don't. [Laughs.] What we had was pretty much some of her papers and we had some photos but my grandmother donated all of her mother's writings to the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library and that makes sense to me because we are not a museum. None of our family can maintain that kind of archive in our house. We grew up with pictures of my great grandmother on the wall and knowing what she did in a simplified way. My grandmother's the one that edited her mother's autobiography and so that was published in 1970 when I was still a child. I didn't recognize the significance of that until now when I look back on it. To me, it was just like, "Okay, you wrote a book." You don't have the same perspective when you're a child that you do when you're an adult.
Farber: You spoke about the idea, and it makes full sense, that your grandmother on one hand kind of instilled a pride in your great grandmother but also shielded you from the traumatic side. Was there a moment for you when you realized just how profound the truth telling and the courageousness of your great grandmother in the face of racial trauma and racial horror?
Duster: I worked on the documentary film that was done by William Greaves called "Ida B Wells: A Passion for Justice" and it was a film that was part of the American Experience series on PBS and I don't know if you all have seen it or not but I worked on that film. I was in film school at the time, so that's the other thing about my personal professional background compared to my siblings and my cousins is just sort of more in alignment with a lot of the work that has been done to preserve the legacy of my great grandmother. So there was a film made when I was in film school. The filmmaker asked me to be on the crew with him and I was in my mid 20s at that point. We went to Memphis to work on the film, to film the areas that were connected to Ida B Wells and we went to the field where Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and William Henry Stewart were killed when I was down with the film crew and standing in that field made it real for me. It's like you hear, "Oh, her friends were killed." Yeah, that happened and all you want to do is run out and go out and play and you want to go to the party with your friends or whatever. It's like you're not trying to deal with that when you're a kid. When I was down there in my mid 20s and I was standing in that space, that's when it kind of hit me that, wow, these guys were literally murdered and they were her friends and also I was closer to the age that Ida was when this happened in her life. Everything about that moment kind of made it real for me, that she was young when that happened. The fact that the land where the men were murdered has never been developed to this day kind of struck me as well that, I almost felt like there were ghosts on that land. I felt I could feel their spirits. It was really a very interesting experience for me. I could see the train tracks in the distance and you could imagine them being shot while the train went by. That was the story that I was told, so that people wouldn't hear the gunshots. That made it real. Also during that trip to Memphis, I stumbled upon a group of people who were dressed up in Confederate army uniforms and the ladies had on the hoop skirts. Growing up in Chicago, I had never seen that before and so it gave me an emotional response of just the level of terror that those symbols meant to my great grandmother and all of the people, the contemporaries of hers. What did that feel like to see that? That was in 1988. Yeah, I guess I was 25 years old at that point and that's what made it real because I grew up in Chicago and Chicago has its own issues but seeing Confederate monuments or symbols of the Confederacy is not something that we see very often. So it just kind of struck me in that moment.
Farber: It seems like there's a balance that you strike, and correct me if I'm wrong, but between bringing forward the history of your great and kind of contending with the haunts of the past, some of which she profoundly confronted and others that you're still dealing with or confronting in your work. How do you balance the need to both talk about the past and also deal with the past's presence in this current moment?
Duster: I think that what is happening today in 2019 is very directly connected to the tension that our country has been under since 1865. Another thing that kind of struck me when I was working on the film was I ended up doing a lot of the photo research and that was the first time in my life I ever had been sort of buried in photos of lynchings. It can be a little bit traumatizing just looking at one picture after another after another of people burned alive and things like that so that was another thing that kind of really made me realize, I grew up looking at Western films where somebody would be hanged and they're on a platform and then the platform drops down and they're left hanging. That's what I thought lynching was but when I saw the photos of literally just mutilated bodies and what struck me was looking at the faces of the people who were standing around the body smiling and taking selfies kind of thing, like, "Hey, look at where we are." For me, putting that into context of today, I often wonder who are the descendants of the people who were in those pictures? Because if there were people standing around ... First of all, they made an effort to go to a lynching like it was a sporting event and then they enjoyed it so much that they decide to take pictures of themselves standing around the body in a gleeful way and bragging about being there, I cannot imagine those people, when they had children, didn't teach their children that black bodies and black people are not the same as they are. I feel that level of dehumanization has probably been passed down generation after generation. I'm only three generations away from my great grandmother so those people who were in the pictures are, I guess, three generations away from the people who were in the pictures so we're all the same generation removed. It's just hard for me to imagine when I look at the nonsense that was going on in Charlottesville. Where did those people come from? Where did they get their ideas from? I'm guessing from their parents who got it from their grandparents who got it from their great grandparents. I think hate is passed down. I think bigotry is passed down. It's taught. No kid who is six months old hates anybody and so I think that in our country, we have a sickness of bigotry and hatred being taught and it's never going to be undone until there is a concerted effort on the part of our country to have truth and reconciliation and actually for people to interact with, meet each other and see each other's humanity. I just think that in order to understand what's happening today, people really do need to understand what happened in the past because they are directly connected.
Farber: Speaking of reckoning and reconciliation, Ida B Wells produced documents and green-lit her own investigative work to explore the horrors of lynching and to bring it to local and national levels. What traces from her writings do you think either play out today as important records of the past or even as instructive for journalists confronting racism and violence today?
Duster: Oh. Right now, here in Chicago, I'm sure everybody in this country and probably overseas have this major spotlight on the Jussie Smollett situation and this city is really embroiled in a lot of sort of vitriol regarding all the different levels of the complex situation regarding that. What's happening here in Chicago, and I'm not sure how it's playing out outside of Chicago, but Kim Fox is being vilified for I guess, quote, "bending the rules" or being paid off or whatever people want to think as far as her being compromised regarding letting Jussie off without being responsible for I guess the crime of staging an attack against himself. People are out for blood for Kim Fox but at the same time, what's happening, I'm seeing it a lot, particularly on Facebook, where people are questioning the differences between how Kim Fox is being vilified for, quote, "letting Jussie Smollett get off easy" but at the same time, in 2014, there was Laquan McDonald who was 17 years old was shot 16 times by the police. He was unarmed and the police officer who shot him, his name is Jason Van Dyke, and a lot of people in the city feel that the police chief at the time who was Gary McCarthy, Rahm Emanuel who's the mayor and Anita Alvarez who was the state's attorney, which is what Kim Fox's position is now, basically covered up the murder of Laquan McDonald. What's happening here in Chicago is this escalating dialog about police misconduct, police covering up murder of innocent people, the mayor being complicit and the law enforcement or the legal community going along with it. Compared to how there's this outrage by the powers that be, the mayor and the current chief of police, outraged about Jussie Smollett, quote, "getting off." What's happening here is it's kind of bringing up all of these other cases that have happened regarding police and the black community and how outraged certain people are about what some people are viewing as miscarriage of justice and other cases that there's a silence about. To me, that is a direct correlation between what my great grandmother was dealing with where you have, during her time, innocent black people being murdered at the hands of the police or vigilantes sort of like George Zimmerman types not being held accountable at all, never being tried, never being sentenced for any kind of a crime and then on the other hand, you have a black person commit a minor offense and they're persecuted and given life sentences.
Duster: People in Chicago are looking at all these different cases that have happened, I would say in the last 10 to 15 years, and seeing a great disparity in black people being overly sentenced for minor crimes, black people being killed by the police and nobody's held accountable for it and then you have one situation where a black person who happens to be a celebrity, quote, "getting off" and there's an outrage that he got off. There's a lot ... It's like nobody can stop talking about this in Chicago and so there's starting to be almost a data collection that's going on on what I see on social media of case after case after case after case of situations where black people feel that the black community was violated and nothing happened to the perpetrators of the violence. Then on the other hand, like I said, if anybody black is even perceived as committing a crime has any kind of justice, then some people are outraged at how could they get away with this crime. It's going to be interesting and it's falling into the mayoral race also as far as the two different candidates have different backgrounds and so people are examining sort of their attitude about the police and their involvement. Lori Lightfoot's background is she was involved on the police board sort of reprimanding the police. long conversation but it's really come to the forefront of the discussion in Chicago..
Farber: And speaking of Chicago and speaking truth to power in Chicago, you've successively worked on two campaigns, one to dedicate a drive in Ida B Wells's name and of course to fundraise for a monument slated for Bronzeville. In this political moment in Chicago, how will Ida B Wells's legacy and memory, especially around pushing against stories of state and vigilante violence against African Americans, how will her memory serve this current moment in Chicago?
Duster: I don't know. [Laughs.] What I see, first of all, the street was dedicated, the street sign ceremony happened just a month ago, February 11th, so it's still really early. What I see so far regarding how her name is being used or commemorated or people expressing pride and joy about it, what I see is more of a sense of women feeling seen and feeling a sense of pride. I just see a lot of those type of messages from women just feeling like, "Wow, we finally have a voice. We finally are being represented" and so I feel like it's more of a woman empowerment thing than a police kind of reform or discussion about police brutality kind of focus, right now anyway. That's what I've seen.
Farber: I want to shift and bring Garrett Felber and Beth Kruse from the University of Mississippi into the conversation, especially in regards to the teach-in. You're in the midst of a number of swirling questions on your campus related to monuments and journalism and this teach-in is a part of this. What led you toward planning the Ida B. Wells Teach-In: Monument to Justice?
Felber: This really originated in fall while I was away on leave after the namesake for the school of journalism, Ed Meek who gave, I believe, $5 million for the honor of having his name put on the building. He posted a photo on Facebook, his own personal Facebook page, of two black women students on campus who were out on the weekend on the square, which is sort of the downtown in Oxford. Along with the post was this sort of tangle of misogynoir, so he said essentially, "We need to take back Oxford and stop what's happening," and linked it to declining property values and declining enrollments at the university and it was just this sort of patchwork of racist, sexist nostalgia. There was this moment that I saw where, having been at universities and seeing how they respond to racism and sexism and homophobia and other forms of hate on campus, is it's usually a PR disaster to be managed rather than harm to be repaired. I reached out immediately to some of the deans at the journalism school and said, "Is Ida B Wells's name being considered?" For me, it was a given that Ed Meeks's name would be stripped. To me, that was common sense and what I didn't want to see was that that be the end-all, be-all center of the conversation was simply a sort of public rebuke to him but that we were actually doing something that repaired the harm to both of those students and students all over campus who had to endure the meaning of that post. They were sort of overwhelmed, I think, in the moment and dealing with the fallout so a colleague of mine, Jessie Wilkerson in history, and I coauthored a petition calling for three things. The first one was consideration along with the family of Ida B Wells, and this is where Michelle Duster and I got in touch and I was really so thankful and fortunate that she lent her support to this. The first was that they consider the journalism school be renamed after Ida B Wells-Barnett. The second was that we begin the process to remove the Confederate statue, which is a long, long battle on this campus. The third was that resources and scholarships be given to black women on campus who want to pursue journalism. For us, that was the start of a kind of reparative justice framework that went beyond managing a crisis by removing Meeks's name, which is ultimately what happened. It's now just the School of Journalism. There's a big blank mark waiting for Ida B Wells's name. 100 faculty, staff and graduate students, we limited it to that constituency, 100 signed it and there was absolutely no formal response from the chancellor or anyone in the administration. The chancellor is now no longer our chancellor, unrelated, but there was an outpouring of support from around the country, on our campus and for us it just was taking that moment and trying to move beyond management of a brand, essentially, and towards actually creating lasting structures on a campus that support black students and affirm struggles to racial justice.
Farber: You used the term "reparative justice." Can you talk a little bit more about the difference between reparative justice and other forms of justice?
Felber: For me, reparative justice is really about ... It comes from the word repair and it gets at, I think, Michelle used the term "reconciliation" earlier as well, and it's that we need to move beyond seeing these moments as something to kind of patch over or We need to actually reckon with the harm and the trauma that is caused. In this particular framework, removing Meeks's name doesn't do anything tangible for black students on this campus. It does something tangible for the university and for the journalism school and they get to sort of forget that their $5 million donor took to Facebook to attack black students and black women in particular on its campus but reparative justice is a framework that allows us to actually consider harm and consider repairing that harm and, along the way, I think doing something healing that doesn't happen when we simply think of it in terms of this kind of PR framework.
Farber: Beth, you are a graduate student in the history department and you also have been working with the Ida B. Wells Museum in Holly Springs. What's your sense of the kind of events on campus and how Ida B. Wells's name began to be invoked as a form of repair?
Kruse: I think as Michelle has said, there's not a long distance between the events of Ida B. Wells's time and now but what the group that I'm working with is two professors and we're working on a Ida B. Wells commemorative tour in Holly Springs to help reconciliation tourism because that reconciliation does need to happen and we need to have these discussions about race and racism and how it is taught and it is passed down from generation to generation.
Farber: What is the presence of her legacy in Holly Springs? What is the museum like? Are there artifacts? Are there stories? How does her narrative live locally?
Kruse: The museum has a few artifacts. The tour is a separate entity from the museum and it's a Holly Springs community development project. What Dr. Jodi Skipper and Dr. Shennette Garrett-Scott are conceptualizing is historical research on Marshall County sites related to Ida. Right now what I am doing is doing research on the time that she was here because that time period is not focused on. Even when Ida starts her journal, it starts in Memphis because her time in Holly Springs was painful, as she mentions in her journal. We want to present a proposal, though, for a pilot tour in Holly Springs that brings out Ida B Wells's youth and the influences here in Mississippi that wound up making her the force that she was as she grew into adulthood.
Farber: On campus, recently there was the declaration from your interim chancellor that the Confederate monument on the Lyceum will be moved to another location and this is following a reinterpretation and a new sign that was put up over the last several years. How does the conversation about the removal of the Confederate monument operate on campus from both of your perspectives?
Kruse: We have to acknowledge that the economic disparity that is a result of the Civil War and Reconstruction starts with the people that built the monuments and that, as Michelle's pointed out, those people have passed onto their descendants. The descendants have learned the racism whereas Ida's contribution was to highlight that these people of the Reconstruction era and beyond were misrepresenting black men and women and Ida's works highlighted that it was that black men were becoming successful. They were living that American dream. And it was the white men who, through lynching and falsehoods, destroyed these black men's lives.
Felber: I would just add, to me the parallel between where this all connects between Meeks's comments in the fall and now sort of decade-long struggles to remove the Confederate statue on campus seemingly like they might finally come to an end. In both cases, we have to understand that it can't simply be about removing the most visible structures of white supremacy on campus and assuming that somehow that means that the less visible ones, the ones that are really foundational and endemic, go away. In part I take my lessons from my work doing prison abolition, which is that it's not just about tearing things down and people often make that assumption, that it's simply about tearing down prisons but really it's about all the things around it. It's about building up and affirming and creating new forms of justice that, once we tear away these edifices, we actually have something lasting because if we just go around tearing down the visible symbols of white supremacy on campus, there's not going to be much of a campus here left. That's what it is. To me, I find it useful, the philosopher Grace Boggs talks about counterrevolution and revolution both involving social upheaval but not being equal opposites and what she writes is that counterrevolution is deeply anti-historical and I think that's the thing that often gets missed with Confederate monuments is people talk about erasing history but they're not historical. They're ideological. They don't actually convey history. They convey a sort of ideology about history so the Confederate statue here was creating long after the end of slavery and its purpose was really, amidst a context of resurgent white supremacy, to honor people who wanted to uphold and maintain slavery. We're not erasing history by taking down a Confederate statue here. The history that gets erased is people like Ida B Wells and struggles against anti-lynching and her work for the suffrage movement. I think it's disingenuous when people talk about the erasure of history by removing Confederate monuments and what we need to think about is creating new structures to replace these and not just structures but the sort of things behind them that actually understood what's foundational about white supremacy on our campus and in our communities and in our society.
Farber: Following that line about the ideologies of monuments, there's a really fascinating parallel between two statues you have on campus. Of course the Confederate monument erected in 1906 by the Daughters of the Confederacy and then a 2006 monument to James Meredith, honoring the desegregation of the university. Is there a dynamic between those two structures on campus or how do they relate or intersect in campus?
Felber: I'll try to answer with a big caveat which is that I've been here three months on campus so this is going to be of my own personal reading of the interplay between the two than anything informed by people who have been here much longer. What I see with the James Meredith statue is this idea that there was this triumphant moment that the university had a hand in rather than really a triumphant movement far too late led by social justice, grassroots organizing struggles in the face of virulent white supremacy, which required federal intervention. That's not the story that that monument tells. It has James Meredith walking through pillars saying, "Opportunity ." I forget exactly what the [other] words are but opportunity is one. There's nothing around that sort of gives a sense of the history of what James Meredith went through to be the first black student enrolled at the University of Mississippi and to my knowledge, I believe he did not even visit the monument until this last year. He was very upset about the statue. I think, again, to get to your question about the relationship, it's the way that monuments actually can erase history. The Confederate statue erases the history of slavery and racial justice struggles to end slavery. Thinking about the contextualization plaque is really telling. The contextualization plaque, which was won through efforts in part by the history department, it's sort of a reminder to people when standing in front of this statue that the Confederacy's loss also meant freedom for black people in America and I think that says it all. That that should be a reminder rather than the story of the Civil War to me says everything about what that statue represents and likewise there's the sort of erasure of struggle with the James Meredith statue that positions the university as this kind of great benefactor instead of the thing that was resistant.
Kruse: I will add one thing. I have seen students sit at the foot of James Meredith's statue and have placards and protest various campus activities.
Kruse: That's something beyond when the Confederates come or the neo-Confederates come
Duster: One thing ... being here in Chicago ...
Duster: I have no firsthand knowledge of this but I remember seeing an article about how a noose was placed around the statue of James Meredith. And so from my perspective, being in a totally different state, it was disappointing that some students would feel that's okay, to use that way of honoring James Meredith as a way to deface him. It is interesting. Monuments in general can be used as sort of a proxy for the person or the ideal the the statue or monument is about. To divert for just a second, here in Chicago. There's a monument to the Confederate soldiers who died in a prison camp here in Chicago in Camp Douglas which was a ... It was a training camp for the Union soldiers and we were at war so there were Confederate soldiers who were captured and they ultimately died in the camp.
Duster: Here in Chicago, there's a mass grave for those Confederate soldiers and there's a Confederate monument in the same cemetery where Ida B Wells is buried and there have been a few protests in the cemetery, sort of friends of the Confederacy or whatever they call themselves have come to that cemetery to pay homage to their Confederate ancestors and I think it was two years ago they were confronted. There was almost a confrontation between them and a group of people who were there to honor Ida B Wells. The protestors that were honoring Ida B Wells specifically chose that day to go there and they asked me to come and I was like, "You've got to be kidding me," because I was not trying to have a fight in the cemetery. I just kind of bring that up because I feel that what goes on regarding monuments is not obviously limited to the University of Mississippi campus when it comes to the Confederate monuments compared to monuments that are about freedom and justice because in Chicago there was that clash in the same space, in the same cemetery. It's just interesting because I think some people use monuments as just a symbol or a physical location to gather in order to further their own agenda and they use the monument as just ... It's just a physical space that that is a place where they can say, "Okay, meet at this point." I think sometimes monuments unfortunately can be misused outside of what the original intent was.
Farber: You've called the event at the University of Mississippi, the Ida B Wells teach-in, "a monument to justice." What can we expect from this teach-in and why was this framing as a monument to justice important to you?
Felber: We're going to, as a teach-in, really focus on sharing pieces of Ida B Wells's work and her life and legacy and we're so honored that Michelle Duster can be down there with us to talk about not only the life of her great-grandmother but also really her own efforts at memorialization and how long those take and how collaborative they are and what it takes to really sort of push these things through. We're going to have readings from Wells as well as about a 10 to 15-minute historical contextualization of her life specifically, as Beth mentioned earlier, focusing on her connections to Mississippi because that's something that people often, even if they know something about her life, don't necessarily know. We're going to have a performance by the University of Mississippi gospel choir and close with a little bit of trivia and we've made tee-shirts and buttons and I have these great Ida B Wells patches that Mariame Kaba sells on her website. It's been a very collaborative effort. Our organizing encompasses community folks, students, graduate students, professors and we're hoping that that reflects the people who are able to come to the event as well. “Monument to justice.” Well I have to say that tagline in particular was come up with by one of our undergraduate student organizers, Britney Brown, so I don't want to say what she might have had in mind with it but to me it gets back to this idea that we need to create monuments on this campus and not monuments in sort of a physical way only thinking about statues but ways to spark conversation and ways to memorialize and honor struggles for justice and not simply big money donors or, as the case is here at the University of Mississippi, people who shouldn't be honored. We still have buildings with the names of slaveholders and we still, for a while at least, will have this Confederate statue. Even when that one falls, we have one downtown on the square so when you talk about, Michelle, about the ways people congregate, we a month ago had a bunch of white supremacists march from one Confederate statue to the other so if you think about the way that monuments sort of act in the present, they literally provide a A-to-B path from downtown Oxford to the head of our campus. We really want to both tear those down. I could care less where they're relocated but I think we also need to be building as we go. This teach-in is really, I hope, an opportunity for people to learn about Ida B Wells's life but also to think collectively about how we might honor her, and back to that sort of reparative justice framework, how we can do that alongside creating structures and resources for students on our campus to thrive.
Duster: Can I just add I think one of the misconceptions that I see in our society is an attitude that there is no need to create systems or programs that address a long history of inequality and marginalization and just elimination of not having a fair playing field. This attitude that, "Well, slavery was a long time ago, get over it," without recognizing the institutional level of oppression, I think there is a strong need in our country for there to be an education for so many people that black people in this country are not where we are because of lack of individual effort to achieve. There has been institutional and structural barriers and until those are addressed, I don't think that we can ever really repair ourselves as a country. When you talk about restorative justice I think, like Garrett said, there needs to be a collective effort but involved in that collective effort has to be education. The problem is that there are too many people in this country who are not even willing to hear anything. I don't really know how we can address our problems as a country. It's very baffling and it's kind of frustrating. It's hard to have a dialog in this country and I'm guessing that most of us can see that when you see the level of resistance to even hearing facts. I think some people feel that there's an effort to make people feel guilty about profiting or benefiting from having opportunities that were denied to others and they don't want to face the fact that maybe they got ahead or they got where they are because a system was in their favor and so it kind of takes away from their idea that they individually were superior. I think we just have a really, really big challenge in our country.
Farber: For those who will be following locally or from afar, what are the best ways that people can connect with the teach-in or help push that support around reconciliation, dialogue, action that you're speaking about?
Felber: One of the concrete things that we're asking people to do from afar as well as on campus but especially if you want to support the efforts to honor and memorialize Ida B Wells and the campus of the University of Mississippi is through social media. We're using the hashtag #UpWithIda and anyone who wants to post about the reasons why the university should honor Ida B. Wells or just kind of follow along with that hashtag, one of the lessons certainly at the University of Mississippi is that the things here cannot happen without external pressure as well. Having support from around the country and for this to be not just a local struggle but a national one where people are really aware and the university administration knows that people are watching, that's one of the leverage points historically and continues to this day.
Farber: Michelle Duster, Garrett Felber, and Beth Kruse. Thank you so much for joining the Monument Lab podcast.
Duster: Thank you.
Felber: Thank you, it was my pleasure.
Kruse: Thank you.
Michelle Duster is an author, speaker, and educator. She believes it is essential that the contributions women and African Americans made to the United States be told in a more complete and accurate way. She is active with various local and national projects, committees, and organizations that create, document and promote the many “untold” stories. In the last dozen years, Michelle’s writing has been included in nine books. She co-edited Shifts: An Anthology of Women’s Growth Through Change, co-wrote the popular children’s history book, Tate and His Historic Dream, plus wrote and edited two books that include the writings of her great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells - Ida In Her Own Words and Ida From Abroad. Her most recent book that she co-edited is Michelle Obama’s Impact on African American Women and Girls. She was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Dartmouth College and her M.A. in Media Studies from The New School in New York City. She has received numerous awards including the 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice Award from Dartmouth College. She currently teaches business writing at Columbia College Chicago. She is currently working on Ida B the Queen, a biography of her great-grandmother Ida B. Wells, and several other writing and public history projects to be completed in the next two years.
Garrett Felber is an Assistant Professor of 20th-century African American history at the University of Mississippi. His research focuses on Black nationalism, prison organizing, and the carceral state. His forthcoming book, Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) is a political history of the Nation of Islam which recenters the role of Black nationalism and prison activism in the postwar Black freedom struggle and the rise of mass incarceration.
In 2016, Felber founded Liberation Literacy, an abolitionist collective and radical reading group inside and outside Oregon prisons. He also spearheaded the Prison Abolition Syllabus, a collaborative reading list which highlighted and contextualized prison strikes in 2016 and 2018 and was published by the online blog Black Perspectives.
Beth Kruse is a native of Mt. Olive, Illinois, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Mississippi. She holds a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Illinois-Springfield and a Bachelor’s of Education Degree in Workforce Planning and Development from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Kruse spent part of her professional career helping to research and develop innovative workforce development solutions for Central Illinois employers and workers with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Her research interests include race, gender, and memory studies. She has presented her work on Civil War prisoner narratives at various conferences and symposia, and her research has earned her the Chapin Research Award from UIS, and a Ventress Summer Graduate Fellowship from the University of Mississippi. A dedicated public historian, she has served as a volunteer Civil War Flag Conservationist for the Illinois State Military Museum, a Volunteer Interpreter at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, and a docent for the annual Behind the Big House Project with Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs in Mississippi. Her digital humanities projects include creating the website “Mother Jones and Coal Mining Memory” and co-creating the website “Captured and Confined: Enemy Combatants and Illinois Military Prisons, 1861-1865.” She currently serves as the Assistant Principal Investigator on the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Tour, a racial reconciliation heritage tourism project funded by a Constellation Grant from the University of Mississippi.