It’s National Women’s Suffrage Month, a designation by Congress in collaboration with the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission (WSCC) to commemorate the struggle for women’s suffrage, the August 26, 1920 adoption of the 19th Amendment into the U.S. Constitution, and the continued fight for full equality for all women. One of the signature events is next week’s unveiling of a larger-than-life, interactive photo mosaic of suffragist and civil rights leader, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), which is being created using thousands of historical photos of suffragists.
Titled Our Story: Portraits of Change, the mosaic installation will be displayed on the marble floor in the Main Hall of Union Station in Washington, DC from from August 24-28. The project is being done in partnership with award-winning visual artist Helen Marshall of the People’s Picture and Christina Korp of Purpose Entertainment. According to the WSCC press release, each image that makes up the larger image of Ida B. Wells tells “its own story about the fight for women’s right to vote.” An interactive online version of the mosaic will let you zoom in on the photos and learn more about the suffragists depicted.
If you don’t know Ida B. Wells you should. Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, she was an American hero who devoted nearly 50 years of her life to fearlessly fighting for racial justice, civil rights, and women’s suffrage. In 1884, while working as a teacher in the Shelby County school system in Memphis, Ida was forcibly removed from her seat in the “ladies car” for refusing to move to a segregated railcar. She sued the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railway, and wrote an article about what was done to her. This inspired her career as an uncompromising journalist and newspaper owner (the Memphis Free Speech), who courageously used her platform to expose racial injustice, challenge segregation, and launch what became a four-decade-long anti-lynching campaign, after three of her friends, enterprising grocery store owners, were brutally murdered by a white lynch-mob in 1892.
Using her pen and voice, Ida investigated other lynchings, wrote editorials indicting lynch law in the South and demanding justice, and travelled across the US and internationally to speak about the “atrocities of lynching”, the motives behind it, and “the government’s refusal to intervene to stop it.” In retaliation, Ida’s life was threatened and her newspaper office and printing press were destroyed while she was out of town.
Unable to return to Memphis, Ida fought on, first in New York where she wrote for The New York Age, and then in Chicago, working on a pamphlet protesting the exclusion of African-Americans from the 1893 World’s Fair. There she settled and married Ferdinand L. Barnett (she kept her last name, which was unheard of at the time, hyphenating it to Wells-Barnett). In 1896, Wells formed several civil rights organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women. In 1909, she became one of the founders of the NAACP, and in 1913, she established the Alpha Suffrage Club, which was the first black women’s suffrage club. In 1930, Ida ran for Illinois state senate. Wells died in Chicago in 1931 at the age of 69.
Earlier this year, Ida B. Wells was posthumously named a 2020 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Special Citations and Awards “For her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
Union Station was chosen as the location for the Our Story: Portraits of Change photo mosaic installation for historical reasons. As the WSCC explains, “As the starting location of the suffrage ‘Prison Special’ tour in February 1919, Union Station in Washington, D.C. played an important role in the American suffrage movement. The ‘Prison Special’ was a train tour organized by suffragists who had been jailed for picketing the White House in support of the federal women’s suffrage amendment. In February 1919, 26 members of the National Woman’s Party boarded a chartered train they dubbed the ‘Democracy Limited’ at Union Station, and they visited cities across the country to speak to large crowds about their experiences as political prisoners.”