For Black History Month, theGrio decided to track down the descendants of well-known African-American historical figures to find out what it is like being descended from some of most the influential people in American history. Here is what Michelle, Daniel and David Duster, the great-great grandchildren of Ida B. Wells, had to say about the joys and burdens of bearing a famous ancestor’s legacy.
Ida B. Wells was one of the most prominent black journalists and newspaper editors at the time and an active member of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s.
Four of Wells’ grandchildren currently run the Ida B. Wells Foundation that helps preserve Wells’ legacy by awarding youth scholarships and supporting the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum.
Michelle Duster, 49, one of Ida B. Wells’ great grandchildren, helped produce a PBS documentary about her great grandmother and has since joined other black historical descendants on panels discussing Wells’ impact on American history.
How did you find out you were related to Ida B. Wells?
Michelle: I knew from an early age that we were related to her just as anyone else learns about their grandparents and great-grandparents. I didn’t understand the magnitude of her accomplishments until I was an adolescent.
Daniel: I knew the importance more so from others that I was related to Ida B. Wells and the significance rather than my parents/family. I was held to a high family standard as the son of Donald Duster and Maxine Porter Duster rather than being a descendant of Ida B. Wells.
David: I found out when I was a young child. My grandmother (Ida’s daughter) was our baby sitter. She used to tell us about Ida. She often talked about our responsibility to excel in school and try to make a positive impact.
What is something people don’t know about Ida B. Wells? Any funny stories or anecdotes?
Daniel: Comparable to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus, in 1884 when Ida was riding the ladies coach on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad the conductor decided to force her into the “Colored” car. When he grabbed her and tried to remove her from her seat, she bit him enough to draw blood.
Michelle: She didn’t like to do housework. She originally wanted to write fiction.
David: Ida went to England in 1893 and in 1894. She took this trip from New York well before there were airplanes. The trip was by boat which took more than five days.
Is having her legacy a burden or an inspiration?
Michelle: Having her legacy is an inspiration because she provided an example of someone who lived by her convictions… As much of an honor it is to be related to Ida B. Wells, I do appreciate being recognized for my own accomplishments rather than referred to only by how I’m related to her.
Daniel: It’s not a burden, but an anchor/responsibility. When I consider her struggles and accomplishments, I know that I can endure and accomplish anything…period!
David: I feel it is an inspiration. For many people it is impossible to understand what it means to be born a slave, and live in a time period where black people were property.
How are you or your family keeping Ida B. Wells’ legacy alive?
(Michelle, David and Daniel via email): Our parents’ generation founded the Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation in 1988. The Foundation has supported the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Holly Springs, MS.
Michelle has written and edited two books that include the original writings of Ida B. Wells – Ida In Her Own Words (2008) and Ida From Abroad (2010). Michelle is also the Co-Chair of the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee that is raising $300,000 to have a monument created by world-renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt, to honor Ida B. Wells in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago.
How would you hope Ida B. Wells would be remembered today?
Michelle: I think Ida B. Wells should be remembered as an African-American woman who battled both racism and sexism at a time when it was extremely dangerous to speak out… She used her gift of writing, speaking and organizing to help shed light on injustice. She was extremely brave and held steadfast to her convictions despite being criticized, ostracized and marginalized by her contemporaries.
Daniel: Ida tends to be known as a crusader against lynching. She was actually a crusader for justice. It so happens that the biggest injustice in America at the time was lynching.
David: I would like her to be remembered as a crusader for justice and education. She started her career as a school teacher but continued to grow professionally and gave herself no limits to what she could achieve. After all, she was born a slave, but that didn’t stop her from making an impact on this country and traveling internationally.
To read more profiles from The Descendants Project, click here.
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