Just like her great-grandmother Ida B. Wells, Michelle Duster is using her voice to fight for racial and gender equity. The educator and public historian has written and contributed to multiple books, most recently an intimate biography about her iconic ancestor, Ida B. The Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells, which published last month. Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi in July 1862, Wells would become one of the leading civil rights activists of the era. In her book, Duster explains how the fight for racial justice and women's suffrage was forever changed by Wells, whom the FBI once described as "one of the most dangerous negro agitators." Here, the author explores the connection between her great-grandmother — an anti-lynching crusader, journalist, organizer and peer of the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois and Madam C. J. Walker — and the inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris, who became the first woman, the first Black person and first person of South Asian descent to hold her office on Jan. 20, 2021.
The spirits of thousands of women, including my great-grandmother Ida B. Wells, were standing with Kamala Harris on Jan. 20 as she took her oath as the 49th Vice President of the United States. As she stood on the Capitol with her striking purple coat, taking on the second most powerful political position in the country, my heart warmed with not only the historical significance of her achievement, but also how her love story reminded me of the partnership that was shared by my great-grandparents.
While Harris took her oath, her husband Doug Emhoff stood by her side. He was beaming with pride that was obvious even through a mask. He was also by her side when Harris — who had already broken barriers by becoming the first woman and first Black woman to become attorney general of California in 2011 — became the first Indian American (and second Black woman) to be elected to the Senate in 2016. She obviously did not shrink herself in order to make others feel comfortable. And that is a trait she shares with Wells.
Yes, my great-grandmother Ida B. Wells is known as a pioneering investigative journalist, newspaper editor and owner, suffragist, civil rights activist, social worker and more. To the world she's an historic icon. But to me, she's my grandmother's mother. A strong, independent woman who waited until she was 33 years old — considered ancient in 1895 — to get married. Her husband, Ferdinand L. Barnett, was a widower with two children. Then she had four children — my grandmother, her youngest, was born when she was 42 years old. Harris married a divorcee with two children when she was 50, which is considered older in today's times. Both married attorneys. Both were stepmothers. Both kept their maiden names. The former California senator kept the name Harris while my great-grandmother hyphenated hers to Wells-Barnett.
In addition to marrying attorneys who were feminists and doting husbands, both trailblazing women, born a century apart, were educated at Historically Black colleges and universities. Harris attended Howard University and Wells attended Shaw University (now Rust College) during the Reconstruction Era in her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, though her studies came to abrupt end when she was forced to drop out after her parents died.
Harris continued my great-grandmother's unfinished anti-lynching work, quoting her on the Senate floor when she and fellow Sens. Cory Booker and Tim Scott introduced legislation in 2019 to make lynching into a federal crime. Over a century ago, Wells met with Presidents McKinley and Wilson to discuss the same goal. Even though the law still has not passed, Harris and Wells are linked together in that quest for justice.
Wells was supported by her husband and she worked tirelessly for women to gain the right to vote. She was a leader in the suffrage movement and co-founder of the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, she defiantly integrated the 1913 women's suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., and she ran for Illinois State Senate in 1930. She not only fought for women's right to participate in our democracy, but also to lead it. Wells was 58 when the 19th Amendment was passed — two years older than Harris was when she was sworn in as VP.
While watching the secret looks, hugs and hand-holding between Harris and Emhoff, I thought about how my great-grandfather was comfortable with Wells traveling to D.C. in 1896 with a nursing baby to co-found the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. He supported her when she co-founded the NAACP in 1909 and the Negro Fellowship League a year later. He encouraged her to testify in front of the governor of Illinois in 1909, to protest reinstatement of a derelict sheriff of Cairo, Illinois, whose negligence had aided in the lynching of an innocent man. He helped her put up signs and mail flyers during her run for political office. He relished sharing a life and supporting and raising a family with a strong, outspoken, ambitious, history-making Black woman.
Harris and Emhoff's love story is affirming and encouraging for women who are often urged to temper their ambition in order to be considered attractive. That notion was also defied over 120 years ago by my great-grandparents. Hopefully more people will believe that it is possible for women to be their best, ambitious and accomplished selves with supportive and loving partners.
Both Harris and Wells are trailblazers. Both women are powerful. Both women were shaped by institutions that were designed to educate Black people in a world that did not welcome us in all spaces. They both defied odds and changed the world. And they did so with progressive husbands by their sides.
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
• ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.
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