Personalizing the Legacy of Ida B. Wells


Zoe Toperosky (she/her), Staff Writer

Determined, courageous, elegant, motivated, unconventional, ahead of her time, visionary. These words and many more are how Dan Duster describes his great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells. 

On the heels of  our historic renaming of our school, Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School, Duster spoke via webinar to our school community on May 6th about Wells’ legacy and the importance of our name change. As a motivational speaker, Duster inspires countless people by educating them on the legacy of Wells and the impact she made as an investigative journalist and activist. 

Duster created an acronym for Ida B. Wells´ name to help people remember her values and things she stood for, which he shared in the webinar. He calls it the Wells way:

W: Wise with your choices

E:  Excellent with your actions

L:  Live with integrity

L:  Lead with courage

S:  Speak with passion

Ida B. Wells was known for doing things in unconventional ways. She always wanted to take a problem that she saw to a level that most would not think of. For example, when she was 16 and her parents had passed away she wanted to support and look after her five younger siblings. But no one in the family was listening or acknowledging this offer, so she grabbed the shotgun that was on the fireplace, held it up and demanded that she was the one that raised her family. And it worked. 

When she wanted to help stop the lynching problem in the United States, she travelled to Europe and demanded a boycott on American cotton. ¨She would say, I´m not just going to make it so I don’t experience it, I’m going to make sure that the society doesn´t experience it,¨ Duster said. Wells became the first journalist to take investigating lynchings to another level. She also spoke out against segregation in schools and that ultimately cost her the teaching job she had. As well as being an investigative journalist, Wells was part owner of a paper, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. 

¨For her to take a stand on things and hold her stand and move forward not only without followers but oftentimes with opposition, to me is incredible. And that is what I would like people to be inspired by,¨ Duster said.

Wells did so many inspiring things in a time where very few spoke out. And oftentimes when she spoke out, she had to do so alone. Because no one else was willing to fight for the problems that Wells saw in society, she decided to stand alone and make her voice heard. In his talk to the community Duster reminded us that is what is so inspiring about her, the fact that she didn’t care if she was alone or if she had thousands of people behind her, all Well´s cared about and wanted was equality. 

Ida B. Wells famously said,¨The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.¨. Duster explains that it doesn’t stop with shedding light. Our obligation is to always carry the message to others. “And that´s the biggest challenge,” Duster said. “You can know the truth, but to experience it and embrace it is different.¨

When it is safe to travel and visit schools again Duster plans to follow up with what he called our “new school” by coming in person and talking to students about Wells´ legacy and seeing our school community in action. Duster speaks to many kids all around the nation, as young as fourth grade, so when the opportunity comes for him to come to our school we know it will be inspiring. 

¨Whatever you do, whatever you choose, I don’t care what you do, just go do your best at it.¨ Duster said. This is one of the values that Wells passed onto future generations. 

This is something that we can apply in everything we do, but especially this year when so much has been taken or put on pause we need to remember to just do the best we can. Wells was able to do this by always giving her all and never backing down from a challenge. 

With our new name change we have the honor and responsibility to uphold Ida B. Wells legacy at our school. And while this is something that most will strive for it will also come with people who oppose us and what we are doing. And much like Wells, we will push forward with courage and make a school community that we are proud to be a part of. In order to live up to our new name, Duster said we need to ¨be able to stand alone at times. Again, that’s not something that you want to do all the time but as far as being a leader, knowing that sometimes you have to stand on your own.¨