Tennessee Sets Ida B. Wells Holiday

The state designates July 16 to commemorate the anti-lynching advocate

Life-sized monument of Ida B. Wells commissioned and erected in July 2021 at the plaza dedicated in her memory. Photo courtesy of Southern Hollows/S. Liles.

At the groundbreaking of the Ida B. Wells Memorial Plaza renovation on July 16, 2022, Tennessee House Minority Leader Karen Camper announced that the day has been enshrined as a state holiday dedicated to Ida B. Wells. “Earlier this year in the general assembly, a bill was passed,” Camper said during the groundbreaking ceremony, as reported by The Daily Memphian. “This bill is to designate July 16, forever enshrined in history, in the annuals of Memphis, the day will be designated Ida B. Wells Day.”

Photograph of Ida B. Wells-Barnett by Mary Garrity taken in Chicago, Illinois circa 1893. Photo courtesy of the Google Art Project.

The plaza, located at the corner of Fourth and Beale streets in downtown Memphis, currently features a statue of Wells at the center of an open space with paved grounds, four gazebos respectively enshrined with the words “educator,” “journalism-activist,” “women’s suffrage,” and “civil rights,” and several trees for shade. Ida B. Wells’ statue was commissioned and erected on the plaza last year, July 2021. The renovation will add more plants and trees to the space for shade and will elevate the statue to make it more prominent and easier for public viewing. Several wayside exhibits and pylons will feature details and stories of lynching, and Ida B. Wells’ personal life and works. “Wells was not born in Memphis, but she became a Memphian,” Rychetta Watkins, member of the Ida B. Wells Memphis Memorial Committee that spearheads the renovation project, said at the groundbreaking, as reported by Commercial Appeal. “That’s the story of so many people today. We want people to be able to come here and read that story that they like Wells can come here, become a Memphian and have an impact that can change not only this city because Wells did and that can touch the world and leave a legacy that resonates 160 years later.”

Ida B. Wells was part of the generation of African Americans who was born into slavery, and was declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation after the arduous American Civil War. She became a teacher in Memphis and, soon after, worked as a journalist for the paper Memphis Free Speech and Headlight where she covered racial segregation and inequality. Her exposé on white Americans targeting Black Americans through mob lynchings garnered national attention from Black-run newspapers. The attention led to a white mob destroying the newspaper’s office, and continued death threats which forced her to move to Chicago where she continued her activism for women’s rights and African American civil rights until her death.

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