Alfreda Wells discusses her mother, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and her book "Crusade for Justice"
BROADCAST: Sep. 3, 1971 | DURATION: 00:50:26
Alfreda Wells, the youngest child of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, talks about her mother's life and work as an investigative journalist and strong champion of civil and women's rights. This version does not have music.
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Studs Terkel [content removed, see catalog record] There's another reference in that song to Paul and Silas, that was Mahalia Jackson, of course, singing "Keep Your Hand on the Plow." That to me is the credo, which seems to be the credo of one of the most remarkable and courageous women this country's ever known, Ida B. Wells. After whom the public housing projects have been named, and during the last years of her life she wrote her autobiography, remembered her her work, "Crusade for Justice," it's called, The University of Chicago Press put it out, it's been edited by her daughter, and I'm very honored and delighted to have Miss Alfreda M. Duster, who in a sense bears history with her. Ida B. Wells' daughter as my guest. Thinking about this song, Mrs. Duster, and your mother's life and this autobiography that you edited, from the very beginning it was it, wasn't it, it was a battle, wasn't it?
Alfreda M. Duster It was a battle from the very beginning because when she was just a teenager, she had to take all the responsibility of rearing our younger brothers and sisters rather than letting them be parceled out to neighbors.
Alfreda M. Duster She was born a slave technically because she was born July 16th, 1862 and the Emancipation Proclamation was signed January 1st, 1863. So that for six months, technically, she was a slave. She -- Her parents were both slaves, of course, and she brought to us many stories of slavery time and the things that she'd heard from her mother and her father.
Alfreda M. Duster That's true. He was born on a plantation just outside the small town of Holly Springs, Mississippi. And as was the custom in those days he was educated to be a carpenter. And in his teens he was apprenticed to a carpenter in Holly Springs, Mississippi. So he received an education. He received his training ostensibly to go back to the plantation and use it there. But the Civil War came, freedom came, and so he became a skilled carpenter in the city of Holly Springs. And it was there that he met my grandmother, who as you say was the just the complete opposite, for she was snatched from her parents from her mother at the tender age of seven and was sold and resold and bore scars on her back of overseers and mean masters. At this time, though, she was a cook for old man Bolling who was a carpenter and my mother and grandmother and grandfather were married according to the slave tradition. But one of her statements was, as soon as freedom came, then they went to a preacher and had a regular Christian wedding.
Studs Terkel You know, as you're talking, Mrs. Duster, it seems as though you're creating, you're recreating a century past and more history, a very moment it seems as though it were this very moment doesn't it?
Alfreda M. Duster That's right. It seems that way because my mother was so vivid in her her recounting of incidents and how she grew up in this little town. She didn't have any of the real poverty situation because her parents were both able. In fact, they owned the little home they lived in in Holly Springs. I have been there and visited the home. I've been to Rust College where she received her education, for her parents were --
Alfreda M. Duster One of the earliest ones, and because my grandfather had some education and was quite active in that little city, he was one of the trustees when this school was founded. He was one of the first --
Studs Terkel It's interesting, Mrs. Duster, it comes back to me, during Freedom Summer, just a few years ago, it seems like a century ago, too, Rust College became one of the centers I think at the time for the kids and their training and gathering and getting people to vote and register.
Studs Terkel Thinking about your mother and of course her eloquence, her brilliance, and we'll come to that, of course, her courage. We point out Ida B. Wells, the projects haven't been named for nothing. She was the first person in this country to really expose the nature of lynchings to the rest of the world. But aside from her courage, her -- Well, let's begin. She was going to school. She was very young and she was on a train -- Let's start this thing.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes. What happened was that after she taught school in the rural district of Mississippi she had an aunt who lived in Memphis and told her if she would bring her two little sisters she would help her to try to secure a position in Tennessee. She accepted that invitation and went to Memphis. But initially she had to go into the rural schools out in Shelby County and she rode this short train from Memphis to Woodstock. And at that time the railroads had not really cracked down on the Jim Crow system. The first-class ticket would entitle a person to a first-class accommodation. So when they became, began to be more positive she was the first one who was really threatened with ejection to be put off the train if she --
Alfreda M. Duster That's right. And when when she sued the railroad, she got off the next stop and went back to Memphis and sued the railroad and the initial verdict was in her favor and she used to tell me that she could remember across the headlines of the Memphis paper the headlines, "Darky Damsel Gets Damages."
Alfreda M. Duster And then after, but after that the railroad appealed and when the appeal went to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, the Supreme Court in the face of all the evidence ruled that smoking car was equal, that it was a first-class accommodation, and that the railroad had a right to have a special coach for white ladies and their accompanists, either their husband or whoever accompany them. Therefore, they reversed the verdict of the lower court and she had to pay all the costs of court. And as she says in the book, "The noose of Jim Crowism fastened itself on the South."
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Alfreda M. Duster In fact, when she went to Europe, when the first invitation came, he was the one who told her, "You have the story to tell. You go, my child," because she was quite a bit younger than he at that time
Studs Terkel But he told of his young boyhood, and as your mother recounts this, "I braced my feet against the seat in front," this when the conductor was trying to drag her out of the train. She wouldn't go because she had first-class accommodations and she had bitten his hand.
Studs Terkel "He went forward, got the baggage man, and they dragged me out," and meantime, this is the part that runs throughout your book, they were encouraged to do this by the attitude, quoting from your mother's biography, autobiography, "Hard Beginnings," the motor man, the conductor and the baggage man dragging this young girl out. "They were encouraged to do this by the attitude of the white ladies and gentlemen in the car [some of them?] who stood on their seats. They get a good view and continued applauding the conductor for his brave stand."
Alfreda M. Duster This was, this was the pitiful part of the situation. Pitiful part of the lynching situation, that is that the, what we call "the silent majority" not only condoned but applauded the fastening of this terrible situation in the South.
Studs Terkel This is it. Throughout your mother and her experiences. Later on, she didn't want to have any argument with Frances Willard the good Christian lady who found the Woman's Christian Temperance Union--
Alfreda M. Duster That's right. What happened in that instance was that Miss Willard and even as you know Reverend Moody who was touring England, those were the two best-known Americans in England at the time my mother was making her crusade. And people asked her over and over again, she tried to avoid it, she said, but they asked her over and over again what they were doing in America from the religious and the Christian standpoint. And she had to tell them that they bowed to the customs of the South rather than try to improve the conditions, that they went about the business of condoning or even to a sanctuary giving thanks to the --
Studs Terkel I guess when your mother, of course, traveled to Scotland and to England and was visiting in Wales all the way was spreading the news. But before that, the beginning, how your mother got this way and her eloquence and courage to -- She became a writer, then an editorial writer, editor of a paper in Memphis.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Alfreda M. Duster She taught school and she took the money she saved her money from her teaching profession and it was with that money she bought an interest in a small paper in Memphis. Prior to that she had been writing articles for papers all over the country. Most papers at that time were were publications of churches and they were the ones who distributed most of the news to the people throughout the country. Kansas City, Indianapolis, Brooklyn, all through the east and even as far west as possible so that she would write articles for these -- And we didn't have such a thing as a syndicate in those days. But she wrote for these various newspapers.
Alfreda M. Duster "The Free Speech" she bought, she saved her money and bought part ownership and became its editor. And it was very unusual for a woman to be an editor. So she traveled for the paper after she was fired. shall we tell that story? She was fired from her job as a teacher in Memphis because of her outstanding criticism of the conduct of the colored school. They had the dual school system there, the white and the Black. There were many things she saw that were very wrong. And she wrote articles about them in her newspaper. And when she went at that time they didn't have the contracts that they do now, they had to do a contract every year. So when she went to see about her contract for the year 1889, they simply pulled out the issue of one of her papers and they didn't pay people to criticize. So she was not given her position as a teacher. So she went about trying to make her living as a journalist. So she traveled and she spoke for her paper and she did the editing and was very happy with that situation.
Alfreda M. Duster Of all that and how she knew that she was a victim or she was the object of very strong "anti" feelings. She knew that she was liable to be killed at any time. And I was reminded of her when I listened to Dr. King on television saying it isn't how long you live but how well you live for. She didn't expect to live to be 69.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Studs Terkel Your mother was threatened continuously. I mean her life was threatened and in Memphis she edited this paper and there was a lynching that occurred. Something happened. There hadn't been any since the Civil War and then something happened near the grocery store.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes. There were three young men whom she knew, she knew them very well. Three young men who had opened a grocery store what was known as "the Curve." They called it the Curve because the streetcar made a big curve and came back into town. But that particular area was not in the incorporated section of Memphis, Tennessee. So that there were some antagonism between these three young Black men who had opened a grocery store and the white grocer. And they knew that the feeling was pretty high but they had hoped to be able to conduct their business on a comparative basis and let the chips fall where they may. But there was an altercation between some boys and both grocers were drawn into it and the three Black men were arrested and they were released very shortly after. But the word came out that there was going to clean out the Curve. When they applied to the police in Memphis they were told they were not in the Memphis area. So they were out of the jurisdiction of the police department. So they got guns to protect themselves. And surely enough that Saturday night one was stationed in the back of the store and they saw some people coming in the back door and in the dust they fired and they wounded one or two men. And the next morning the white newspapers said, "Deputy sheriffs wounded in line of duty," and they inflamed the public with the idea that this was a terrible hangout for thieves and that these men had been going out there to do their duty to clean out this nest of thieves and that they were fired upon so that the tension in Memphis was very strong. The three men were arrested and put in jail. But at that time there was a group called Tennessee Rifles by young -- They had, they had companies then they were liable to have able to have their own arms, and they surrounded the jail and watched for three nights until the word came that the deputies were out of danger. So they felt that they need not stand watch anymore. And the fourth night then the mob went to the -- Went to the jail and through a ruse got in, took all three of these men, put them on a spur of the railroad track, took them on a short way out of town and murdered all three of them. This lynching was in March of 1892. And when mother came back she was out of town on a mission for the paper. When she came back the lynching had already been accomplished, the men had been buried but she was very much incensed and she began writing editorials in her paper.
Studs Terkel This is one, of course, right here. By the way, throughout recurring through your mother's autobiography and very moving it is, too, powerful, is the role of the establishment press throughout, how the hysteria continuously -- I wonder to what extent we have progressed since then, I wonder.
Studs Terkel Here, then, Mrs. Duster, if I may read your mother's editorial, 1892 in her paper "The Free Press": "The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails a Negro if he has to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now as we are outnumbered without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay. But the order is rigidly enforced against selling guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left that we can do: save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property nor give us a fair trial in the courts but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons." And this, of course, led to a whole new development.
Studs Terkel Now, I think this is very important here, something Dr. King had in mind too, and there's the matter of "One thing may affect the big man, the man, that's the pocketbook." And so we come -- There was an exodus to Oklahoma and now the press suddenly is crying out, "Don't go!" After setting up the climate for the lynching.
Alfreda M. Duster That's right. And this was, of course, some almost 60 years before that Montgomery bus boycott because this was in 1892 the representative of the railroad company of the electric company did come to her office and she talked to them about this situation and told him the same thing that you're mentioning, that that the people of Memphis, she advised them to walk. This was long before there was a Montgomery bus boycott. These were street cars at that time, and the company said that they had just changed over to electricity, that they wanted the people to ride, that they wanted them to report any discourtesy to them, and they would do everything they could, and they couldn't understand why the people were not using it. So my mother said, "How long have you noticed this?" And they said that for about six weeks, and she said, "That's the time of the lynching." And she said, "I told them to stop riding, I told them to leave Memphis, I'm going to continue to tell them to do that."
Studs Terkel Now, what was the outcome? That's rather interesting, 'cause here, suddenly, two things were happening. There was the white power's recognition that there's some economic power to some extent, and the Black people's recognition that they had this one one weapon.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes. So what happened, the culmination of this story is that as mother said, they couldn't very well silence her without arousing the antipathy of the Black people of Memphis more, so they waited for her to write an editorial that gave them an excuse and that editorial was the result of one of her investigations of the lynching. She came back to Memphis and wrote this editorial that said, "No one believed the threadbare lie that lynching is caused by these young Black men after white women. And if white men are not careful, they will cause a very serious implication of their white women." Now. So the next morning, that was put, she put that in the paper on a Saturday and she went off to a Philadelphia convention and Monday morning the white press said, "Any dastard who made such a remark should be brought to the public square and branded," oh, and they just built things up to fever pitch because they could use the excuse of defending white womanhood to get rid of this troublesome Black newspaper and this Black woman. And this is what happened. They went down. They formed a committee and well marched through the streets of Memphis and went down on Beale Street where the press was and wrecked the press and set fire to the building and posted a notice for anyone tried to publish that paper again and if they had found her, of course, they would have lynched her at that time.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Alfreda M. Duster Ida B. Wells. Someone had called ahead to Mr. Fleming, who was her partner, and he did gather up a few things and removed himself before the mob got there so his life was not taken. But he left Memphis after that.
Alfreda M. Duster That's true. But for a long time she was not able to get the ear of the people who were able to make decisions, who were able to change conditions. And one day there was a terrifically terrible lynching, a burning alive of a man in Paris, Texas.
Alfreda M. Duster A human torch and they were, it was in the newspapers in England and there were a group of people discussing this and Ms. Katherine MP who had been in this country and met my mother while she was lecturing in the North, wrote and asked her if she could come and tell the people of England why the people in America were burning people alive.
Studs Terkel Before her her tour of Europe and spreading the news there. Something you mentioned about how often excuses for the use of the lynchings the question of the white woman and the Black man.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Alfreda M. Duster Never. But, but as she said, the white man who considered it his privilege couldn't even imagine a white woman even wanting to have relations with a Black man. In fact, this was his rigid [interpretation? ] and you know, he put this woman on a pedestal pedestal he'd never allow her to do this and anything that even looked like it began to threaten her. But in spite of all those restrictions, of course, there were many unions of white women and Black men then as now because people are people and love has a way of overcoming many obstacles. And so that there were many cases that she mentioned in her book where a white woman give birth to a [nursery dark child?], where there were women who were ostracized because they refused to tell the parentage of the man who was responsible for this. And then she investigated many other lynchings herself, she would get on a train and go to places where she heard they were lynching only to find that they only cried lynching after there was a relationship that had been discovered. And so she was very highly critical of this situation as it existed.
Studs Terkel Something very very telling and fascinating is involved here, too. Two things: First, the matter of the brutishness of the lynchings, the racism, but the matter of women's lib is involved here too, isn't it?
Alfreda M. Duster It is, it is because mother was very much very much would have been quite in the forefront of women's lib. She was in woman's suffrage. And when people used to tell her that the mother should be in the home, she said that mother should teach her sons to cook so that they wouldn't have to eat cold potatoes. They could have a dinner while mother was taking care of the business of the world.
Studs Terkel Your mother was very contemporary, Miss Ida B. Wells, we'll return in a moment with a conversation with Alfreda M. Duster, who is quite remarkable herself and who helped edit her mother's very very incredible autobiography, "Crusade for Justice," her mother being Ida B. Wells and University of Chicago Press are the publishers, of a woman too little known really, by the broad public. We'll return in a moment to the con-- with Mrs. Duster after a word. Resuming the conversation with Mrs. Alfreda M. Duster about her mother, a Black woman, Ida B. Wells, after whom the projects are named and in this instance some might say very justifiably, indeed, you know, who was the first person in America to spread the word internationally about the lynchings. In fact, her friend Frederick Douglass, perhaps the greatest, perhaps the greatest Black man the country has known.
Alfreda M. Duster Because he said that all they knew was what was revealed in the white press and the white press had even made him begin to wonder whether or not these conditions were true and what she had said and the facts that she brought out were astounding not only to the white press but to him, to our own people in the North because there weren't many Black people in the North at that time. But those who were here were relatively free from this kind of of oppression and this kind of intimidation.
Studs Terkel And this is terribly important. Here is Frederick Douglass, the emancipated man, the brilliant man, the internationally known orator and editor, who himself said, you know, how how one can eventually become victim of a lie. He said, for a time, he came to believe himself for a moment that of the lasciviousness of the Black man 'til your mother, Ida B. Wells, let him know the truth. So it shows you how, how this lie can really -- How deeply it can reach.
Studs Terkel There's something else. Throughout it seems that way at the beginning that we're talking about a Southern attitude toward the Negro, toward the Black or as your mother called it back in those days, the colored person.
Studs Terkel Names, again. But then someone said, "How come not more have come North?" and your mother's friend, again we come to a suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, said, "Who said the North is that much better?"
Alfreda M. Duster She jumped up in a public meeting in Rochester, New York and said, "I'll tell you why they don't come North. Because we don't treat them any better here than they do in the South." And that made quite headlines in Rochester, New York.
Studs Terkel We're talking about your mother's disc-- She was really an investigative reporter, too. She went to the scene. She went there. Gee, where's the one, oh, I know, we think, of course, obviously we come to something now. It's amazing, as I read your mother's autobiography, how it seems I'm reading about something that's happening now, and she went to Cairo, Illinois.
Alfreda M. Duster In Cairo, Illinois. And during her travels she has told me that she has gotten off in small railroad stations in the state of Illinois where there was posted a sign, "Nigger, don't let the sun go down on you here," in the state of Illinois in this century, so that Southern Illinois in many respects was a very very prejudiced and discriminatory area. And Cairo, you know, they're having massive problems there now. They had massive problems then and the lynchings that were recurring more rapidly and more frequently in the North disturbed her quite seriously. And there was one instance where the sheriff allowed his prisoner to be taken from him.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes. Taken from him and lynched. Previous to that, a law had been passed that if a sheriff allowed his prisoner to be taken from him, if he didn't protect his prisoner, then he would be dismissed from office and he could make application for reinstatement, but would have to go before the governor of the state. And in this particular instance you mentioned, this had happened, and my mother was in Chicago and she read about this instance and she decided now that she had a family that she was going to stay home and let some of the men go to the forefront. And there's a human interest there that my father told her that she should go down and take care of this matter, and she said, "Well, now all these men and all these organizations say I'm always running out trying to do something before they do, let them take this problem." So she went upstairs to lie down with the baby, I presume that it might have been my sister or myself. And she looked up, and my brother, my older brother was standing by the bed and he said, "Daddy says it's time for you to go." And she said, "Go where?" He said, "To go down to Cairo to take care of this Frank Davis matter."
Alfreda M. Duster He was the sheriff, and so, he looked at her and said, "Mother, if you don't go, no one'll go." And so from her son she got the inspiration to get up and get ready and go down and prepare the document that would present to the governor the information that would disqualify Frank Davis from being reinstated.
Studs Terkel But this leads to something, here came a new problem for your mother. This young mother, Ida B. Wells, down in Cairo and she talked to the Black community and here were some middle-class Blacks who were terrified. And wanted to hush the whole matter up.
Alfreda M. Duster That's right. Once again we come to what's happening in contemporary life. But her plea before Governor Deneen was so dramatic and so factual that Frank Davis was not reinstated and yet she states in the book, "Frank Davis himself came to her and told her that he had no feeling of animosity against her and he complimented her on what she had done, which were what she thought was right, and was the same thing with his attorneys and those who were opposed."
Alfreda M. Duster She got on the train and went there, she either got permission from -- She'd have a mass meeting, she'd get the money from somewhere. Sometimes "The Chicago Defender" would finance her trip and she would go wherever there was a disturbance, she'd get on the train and go really before the, before the smoke cleared away.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Alfreda M. Duster The question of the basic idea of limiting education to vocational attitude because to train into skills. And Dr. DuBois was an academic. He was the first one of, the first graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D. and my mother and father both sided with him in this particular phase, in this particular idea because we need teachers, lawyers, doctors, dentists, persons who have academic training as well as those who have vocational training, we need both and she she objected to Booker Washington's limiting the education of Black people to vocational education.
Studs Terkel It's also interesting that your mother would not take any myths, no matter who tried to offer them, any affront no matter who tried, and there's an interesting story here in Chicago, I think it's worth telling, your mother's encounter with one of these, Julius Rosenwald was offering money for various Black projects, but there was a man named [Sachs? Saks?] who was quoting Booker T. Washington in your mother's presence.
Alfreda M. Duster There was a group who had come to see her about something and they were very amused and they were laughing about the fact that they'd been most amused at some of the stories Booker T. Washington had told, and she wasn't amused and they questioned her about it, and she said that Booker T. Washington was doing a wonderful job with Tuskegee and she hoped that he would be successful in raising money. However, she objected to his telling stories on his own people, stealing chickens and other offensive things to raise this money. And she turned to them and said, "Rabbi [Hirsch?] is your leading Jewish spokesman in this country. How would you like it if he went about trying to raise money or trying to appease audiences by telling stories about Jews burning their businesses for the insurance?" and, of course, this put an entirely different face on it.
Studs Terkel The thing about your mother, of course, was her incisiveness her clear-mindedness, too, about what was going on, but continuously, even though raising a family here in Chicago she was, she would just hop on a train or wherever it was and get to wherever the trouble was.
Alfreda M. Duster When we had the riot in Chicago, she went out every day. Everyone else was disposed to be holing up and boarding up. She wanted to be in the action and she wanted to see for herself. And if you will find later in the story how she objected seriously to bringing Attorney General Brundage into Chicago for the investigation of this lynching -- I mean the riot in Chicago.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes. Because in East St. Louis, she felt he had not handled the situation with fairness to the Black people in St. Louis, but here entered some political considerations. And of course, if you remember at that time almost all Black people were Republicans and they said they'd rather have a Republican to come in and to get our own state's attorney [Horn? Horne?] who was a Democrat at that time.
Alfreda M. Duster So there were there were political implications here in addition to the racial implications, and my mother was the kind of person who was -- con-- She considered the effect on her race first. And if she felt [McClayhorne?] was a better man to do the investigation than the other, she said so. Even though she was against the entire, the general public.
Studs Terkel Which was a couple of years before the Chicago riots. Your mother was continuously there and, oh, by the way, this is later on, she backed Big Bill Thompson, for mayor, but then he double-crossed people, didn't he?
Alfreda M. Duster Well, let me say this. This is also a very complex political situation. When Big Bill Thompson came in to make his bid for the mayoralty race, he contacted my mother and convinced her that he was serious about being a good mayor, about doing what he could to help the Black people in this city, and she got her club, you know, she organized the first suffrage club called the Alpha Suffrage Club, and she was able to do quite a bit. But in the meantime, Judge Harry Olson, who was a judge, was at the last minute prevailed upon by the organization to make the race for mayor. So that since Judge Olson had appointed her as the adult probation officer, she felt she could not continue to work with Bill Thompson against Harry Olson, although she was sure, as she said in the book, that Judge Olson did not have a chance to win the mayoralty election. Now after she did not go through to the election with Bill Thompson, then her effectiveness was completely wiped out so that she did not have any part in the ensuing administration.
Studs Terkel I think about your mother, Ida B. Wells, Miss Alfreda Duster is my guest, and her absolutely incredible courage when she went to East St. Louis and all the Black people were scared to be out on the street during the riots, and she would just walk right down the street all by herself.
Alfreda M. Duster -- And when she got off the train in East St. Louis, the conductor was amazed that she would get off there. And she said, "Well, why shouldn't I get off?" And he said, "Well, there's trouble here." She said, "So, I know there's trouble here. That's why I'm here."
Studs Terkel I think more of the cases, the case of Steve Green, the case of Joe Campbell, these are various men whose lives she saved. [Unintelligible] But wherever there was a battle, she was also involved with the battle of the showing of "Birth of a Nation" here, too.
Alfreda M. Duster And she was so disappointed that the general public, the Black public, did not respond, because it could have been banned here just as it was in many other cities. That is one of the most vicious, derogatory, inflammatory things that has ever been put out. And she was one of those who was vehemently objecting to its showing.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Alfreda M. Duster She, and after she left Rust College, you see, back in her early teens she never stopped: studying, writing, learning. She read vociferously [sic], she read and she really was what you might call self-educated after her college days, and she kept up with all the newest events, and she wrote continually, and as she wrote, of course, she developed her style.
Studs Terkel Now I'm pointing, I've marked something here, and we think of your mother writing of her childhood, the last part of the 19th century and maybe up to 1931, when she died, and this must've been 1929, 1930, when she was writing this, and she says -- and I wonder -- now it's 1971. "Many people wonder at the crime wave sweeping over our country." This is about 1929, isn't it?
Studs Terkel "At the horrible murders committed by young bandits and the cold-blooded taking of life by the men and women of this generation with white skins. Strange they do not seem to realize that this simply a reaping of the harvest which has been sown by those who administer justice as was done in the case of the East St. Louis rioters." And we could name, of course, more recent matters than that. Isn't it amazing? That your mother is almost speaking of 1971.
Alfreda M. Duster You see, as you say, she was quite perceptive and she went to these places where these riots occurred and they really were not riots, they were really mass murders, and they were the attempt of the dominant majority to crush any rising independence of young men who were banding together to either to protect their crops, to better their condition, to protect their products that they were manufacturing, or in any way to seek any kind of justice for themselves.
Studs Terkel Of course the tragic, you point out that she was disappointed at the Black people's turnout during hearings here and there, I noticed your mother was also attacked at times by those who by this time began to serve. They called her a radical, that's interesting. I'm thinking of Oscar the priest.
Alfreda M. Duster
Alfreda M. Duster Yes. She was instrumental in working to get him elected because there was a young man who who came before the Alpha Suffrage Club and she got the women to get out and get some petitions signed and of course, the regular politicians and the regular organization just laughed at their efforts until the day of the primary came, and they came within three or four hundred votes of electing the independent candidate. Then the men came out to the Alpha Suffrage Club and promised them if they would support the candidate of the organization that at the next election they would present or put on a slate a Black man. And this is Oscar the priest was put on the ticket.
Studs Terkel But I think one of the most moving aspects of the book toward the end, your mother is now an older person. She's battled all her life ever since she could remember. And something happened in Arkansas and she visit these prisoners who were terrified, and even here she had to do it under some sort of mask, didn't she?
Alfreda M. Duster Well, she didn't try, she knew that she would be turned down. So she went to the home and she put on some old clothes and put on one of them big [fall?] hats and went along as a relative.
Studs Terkel You know, and she says she's their cousin from St. Louis. But then we come, then as soon as her friend whispered who she really was, and Mrs. Barnett, your father, you are, you your maiden name was Barnett, and Ida B. Wells married Mr. Barnett. "'This is Mrs. Barnett from Chicago,' an expression of joy spread over their faces because they had heard of her. And I put my fingers to my lips," this is your mother talking, "And cautioned them not to let on. And the mask seemed to drop over the features of each of them. I talked to them about their experience, asked them to write down everything they could remember, the acres of land they had and they tilled, how much cotton and corn," she wanted their whole life story, isn't it? She was a great reporter, your mother, a great chronicler.
Alfreda M. Duster And one thing I'd like to point out is that after each of these visits she would come back to Chicago and have printed a pamphlet or a booklet about this, and the sad thing about it is that I don't have those because they were, they were all destroyed in a fire. But she was constantly writing.
Alfreda M. Duster Spirituals.
Studs Terkel "And there was hope and the warden could not figure out what this strange sound may have been -- But then I walked close to the bars and said to them in a low tone. Oh, they were shedding tears and they spoke of prayers and of the hereafter." And this is the part, that's why I was thinking of Mahalia Jackson's song that opened this program.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Studs Terkel She said to the prisoners, "I've been listening to you for nearly two hours. You've talked and sung and prayed about dying and forgiving your enemies and the feeling sure you're going to be received in the New Jerusalem because your God knows you're innocent of the offence for which you expect to be electrocuted. Why don't you pray to live and ask to be freed? The God you serve is the God of Paul and Silas who opened the prison gates and if you have all the faith you say you have, you have to believe he will open your prison doors, too. If you do believe that, that all of your songs and prayers hereafter be songs of faith and hope that God will set you free. That the judge who has to pass on your cases will be given the wisdom and courage to decide on your behalf. That's all I've got to say. Quit talking about dying. If you believe your God is all-powerful, believe He is powerful enough to open these prison doors, then say so. Dying is the last thing you ought to even be thinking about, much less talk about. Pray to live and believe you're going to get out." Well, of course, that's really tremendous.
Alfreda M. Duster I think the sequel to that is that one day in our home in Chicago one of the young men who came told the family that he was one of those and that from that day on they did change their idea, they did change their attitude, and then God did put into the judge's mind the ability to free them. And he was one of them.
Studs Terkel To be free. All we're doing is touching very lightly, too, upon this remarkable autobiography of a most remarkable woman, Ida B. Wells, through the voice of our daughter who obviously carries the torch still. Mrs. Alfreda M. Duster has lived in Chicago all your life, practically.
Alfreda M. Duster I think probably the thing that I remember most, of course, as the youngest child in the family, was my mother's constant drive and her constant ability and desire to do for someone else and that is to to make conditions better. To make conditions better so that persons would have an opportunity to fulfill their own potentials. The one thing that we had at this time in the early '10s, '20s and '30s, those last three decades that my mother lived, she was instrumental in helping so many people, the young particularly, she was always interested in young people, and there were two young men who started a newspaper called "The Messenger," they were Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph. A. Philip Randolph, of course, is the one who has had the tremendous struggle of organizing the Pullman car porters against their will, against everyone else's will, of the young men who started "The Chicago Whip," of the editors of all the newspapers including "The Defender" [sic] and "The Broad Ax."
Alfreda M. Duster One thing I haven't touched on and I would like to mention is the fact that, while in England, my mother was -- Became acquainted with the movement among the English women to take part in civic affairs. In this country there had been no civic clubs, what groups we had were connected with churches, they were missionaries' societies or they were sewing circles. So she came back imbued with the idea that Black women should get organized and take their part in civic activities. So she organized the first civic club among women, among Black women in this country. They started in Boston and then in 1893 she organized a club right here in the city of Chicago, the first civic club and it happens that that club is the oldest living club in the country. This club was named for her when she went on her second crusade. The members of the club changed that to the Ida B. Wells Woman's Club and that club is one of the oldest in the country and it was the basis of the foundation of what is called the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. That organization was formed because while my mother was in England there was a white editor in the South who wrote a scurrilous and a very terrible article attacking all Black womanhood, my mother in a specific role and all Black women in general. He said none of them had any morals or anything of this kind. And the response in this country was to call these civic clubs together to demonstrate the activities, the integrity and the morality of these women.
Alfreda M. Duster Yes.
Alfreda M. Duster She understood what he was trying to do. She lectured for his group in New York and she tried to get him to take a more more leisurely or a more substantial view toward the Black Star Line. And she says in her book if he had just listened, this was the beginning of his undoing. He had attracted a tremendous following in New York, in fact, and across the country and she was always interested in whatever she felt would help her people and she felt that this ability to draw draw people together, to lead them and to try to do something constructive for their own future, was tremendous.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking in your mother's life that there are posts, benchmarks. She knew Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, and yet not just knew them, she herself was a participant--
Studs Terkel In all these matters and there she was, where the specific danger was and the most horrendous area or lynching occurred or a riot occurred. She was there as an investigative journalist and then she was the orator and the spokesman, all this quite remarkable. And of course that young girl on that train way back in 1892--
Alfreda M. Duster Eighty-four.
Studs Terkel Eighty-four. Who would not be put into the smoking car, she -- How how many years it was before Rosa Parks refused to be humiliated in that bus in Montgomery? So there's your mother, Ida B. Wells, and the year to me is 1971. Mrs. Alfreda Duster. Thank you very much.
Studs Terkel And the book is the "Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells" and it's edited by my guest, her daughter Mrs. Alfreda M. Duster, University of Chicago the publishers. And let us close where we opened, with a song that I still insist is the mother's credo, "Keep Your Hand on the Plow."