Page after page in history you’ll read
Of one who was ready and able to lead,
Who set the nation on fire with her pace
And the heroine will be the queen of our race
— Bettiola H. Fortson, “Queen of Our Race,” 1915
Ida B. Wells, the queen indeed. She was a journalist, suffragist, anti-lynching crusader and one of the most famous Black women in America from the 1890s into the early 20th century. The FBI labeled her a “dangerous Negro agitator” for reporting on the horrors of lynchings and writing searing editorials about systemic racism against Black Americans. A co-founder of the NAACP in 1909, Wells railed against racism, segregation and sexism at every turn.
She was never one to be relegated to the back, no matter what white power structures tried to force her to the end of the line.
In “Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells,” a new book by Wells’ great-granddaughter Michelle Duster, a 1913 image of Wells and other suffragists leaps off the page, even in black-and-white ink. That year, with the help of white suffragists Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks, Wells established the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first all-Black suffrage organization in Chicago. Efforts to get women the right to vote had picked up — and Wells recognized the need for Black women to gain power at the polls, too. She traveled to Washington, D.C., to represent the suffrage club at a parade on March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.
More than 5,000 women showed up to demand the right to vote. But organizers wanted the Black women to march at the back of the parade. Suffragists from the South would not walk beside them.
“Either I go with you or not at all,” Wells said. “I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.”
When the parade began, Wells was nowhere to be found. That is, until the Illinois delegation of suffragists started to march forward. In a picture-perfect moment, Wells, in her sash and crown, appeared alongside her white counterparts to finish out the march down Pennsylvania Avenue — just as a Chicago Tribune photographer snapped a photo.
The photographic representation of a Black woman taking her rightful step forward in the suffrage movement was just the start for Wells’ club. The organization became a sought-after endorsement for political candidates in Illinois. Their support helped usher in Chicago’s first Black alderman, Oscar DePriest; women’s votes accounted for more than one-third of his support.
Wells’ quote — about her actions being for “the future benefit of her race” — resonated very clearly with me, especially after the 2020 election cycle. It immediately brought to mind author and liberation activist Anna Julia Cooper and her famous declaration: “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole … race enters with me.’”
More than a century later, these words feel especially prescient, as we salute the work of Black women organizers, elected officials and activists who saved America, who saved themselves, from what seemed like the brink of demise.
Imagine, for a moment, what Americans would be feeling today, just weeks after Inauguration Day, without Black women like Nsé Ufot and LaTosha Brown, who mobilized voters in record numbers to elect President Joe Biden and Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Imagine the state of Black girlhood without organizations like EveryBlackGirl and Justice For Black Girls, which work to protect Black girls like Grace, who are pushed out of school and overpoliced because their race and gender seem like great threats, even at young ages. Imagine where several Black survivors of sexual assault would be if women like Asante McGee and Drew Dixon didn’t step forward to tell their stories to say, quite simply … enough.
The undisputed dignity of Black womanhood, as it turns out, is the highest form of self-preservation, not in spite of her family, her friends, her communities or the world, but because if the BLACK WOMAN can experience freedom, then everyone else can follow. Perhaps that’s why the stories and words of Wells, Cooper, civil rights activist Gloria Richardson, freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer, lawyer Pauli Murray, transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson and so many others ring as loud wake-up calls to jolt us toward action.
It is the spirit of these women’s achievements that light the way forward for us all. So for Black History Month, HuffPost is honoring Black women, of past and present, whose life stories paint a portrait of America. With a collection of essays, interviews and features with Black women who are working toward an equitable America, the project highlights the ways Black women have always been the standard-bearers for change and justice. Today, as the refrains “protect Black women,” “respect Black women” and “listen to Black women” reverberate across social media and are stamped on T-shirts and tote bags, we must remember that the work is still underway.
Nearly 20 years ago, Duster thought her great-grandmother’s legacy was starting to fade when the city of Chicago started to demolish the Ida B. Wells Homes, a public housing complex in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side. For years, she has worked to keep Wells’ work a part of the conversation about racial justice in America. But perhaps the biggest shift finally arrived in 2020. In May, the Pulitzer Prize committee posthumously honored the civil rights icon for her “courageous reporting” and investigations of lynchings. A few months later, her name appeared in headlines noting the enormous contributions of Black women in the suffrage movement as the U.S. commemorated 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
But for Duster, it was the moment when Vice President Kamala Harris mentioned her great-grandmother in a heated debate about a federal anti-lynching bill on the Senate floor that filled her with pride. “That really had a lot of meaning to me, because she recognized that people fought and worked hard before now in order to pave the way for her to ascend to where she is now,” she told me. “And so when it comes to voter rights, voter suppression, and just the tactics that have been used to disenfranchise us, we need to know this history.”
Much has been written about the monumental power of seeing a Black woman enter the White House as vice president. And about all the hard work Black women across the country have put in during local and statewide elections. Yes, it is a beautiful vision of progress, full stop.
But the work doesn’t end here — and Black women leaders are laying out their expectations.
“There is a real expectation about Democrats delivering on the kinds of policies that voters have been talking about for the last two years,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, a political action coalition devoted to engaging Black voters. “It will be really hard for us as BlackPAC and our partners on the ground to go back out to folks and say once again, ‘This is the most important election of our lifetime’ if Democrats aren’t able to say very clearly and very concretely, ‘Here are the things that we did that we said that we would do.’”
For BlackPAC, one step forward looks like a renewed energy around the upcoming gubernatorial election in Virginia, where two Black women, Jennifer Carroll Foy and Jennifer McClellan, have announced their candidacies. If either of them wins, they’ll be the first Black woman to become governor in the United States. Shropshire says that election, one of the first major races during Biden’s presidency, could signal what kind of leadership voters are looking for.
Shropshire also emphasized how important it is for Democrats to cultivate and heed a brain trust of Black strategists, organizers and consultants to help them keep winning elections.
“That expertise should not be allowed to just continue to wither,” Shropshire said. “These victories happened because you had an entire generation or more of people who very clearly understand how to win elections, who very clearly understand how to have a conversation with Black voters in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they are being taken for granted.”
For decades this has been the cycle: Big symbolic wins followed by long waits for change within structures that were never designed for Black women to reap the rewards. But Black women have never waited around for anyone to save them. Their voices have always been loud and clear, unwavering in their pursuit of justice. Hamer’s famous declaration — “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” — encapsulates much of the emotional toll of working toward liberation. But that fatigue doesn’t stand in the way of Black women like KJ Brooks, who spoke out against a police board in Kansas City, Missouri. It doesn’t stop rapper Megan Thee Stallion, who spoke up for Black women when she talked about her violent assault in The New York Times.
“She marches for everyone else, riots for everyone else, dies for everyone else. She loves everyone else, lives for everyone else,” Megan Thee Stallion said. “But when it comes down to her, there ain’t a motherf***er in sight.”
The state of Black women in America makes it plain: There’s a lot of work to be done.
In the last few years, Black women have been bombarded with doomsday headlines about their own experiences. The numbers are staggering.The numbers are staggering: Black women are three times as likely as white women to die in childbirth. Black women are facing disproportionate rates of unemployment amid the pandemic. Black women are starting businesses faster than any other racial group, but are largely being shut out of access to funding. Fighting against many injustices, Black women have taken so much of the power in their own hands, and are working in and outside of existing power structures to affect change.
Elle Hearns knows all too well about big numbers driving the stories behind her communities. Hearns is the founder of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of Black transgender and gender-nonconforming people. The tragic deaths of Black transgender women such as Islan Nettles, Layleen Polanco and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells have become major news stories, and Hearns has watched the number of transgender homicides tick up every year. In 2020, the Human Rights Campaign counted at least 44 killings of trans women, mostly women of color — the highest number of deaths on record since the group began tracking this data in 2013. This can’t be the beginning and end of the story, Hearns told me.
“To really center trans people, especially the experiences of Black trans people, more needs to happen. When I say more: more equity, more opportunity, more resources,” Hearns said. “There are demands that will still need to continue beyond this presidency and the next one, until we have a world that is really liberated and able to play on its own terms and in new ways that we’ve never seen before.”
So much of the work to protect Black women starts with affirming their livelihoods. It is not enough to track the data around disproportionate health outcomes.
“So many of us who’ve been in health care for a while already know the statistics. We know that Black women are disproportionately impacted,” said Tammy Boyd, chief policy chair at the Black Women’s Health Imperative. “But what’s hopeful is that all of a sudden — with COVID and after George Floyd’s death — there’s a new energy and a renewed focus on health equity. We already knew these disparities were there, but now everyone is talking about equity.”
BWHI looks to Harris’ track record in the Senate, championing efforts around maternal mortality and uterine fibroids, as a signal that these issues will be addressed by the Biden administration. In the meantime, the organization has drilled down on its own health policy agenda, focusing on access to quality and affordable health care, equitable responses to public health emergencies, sufficient diversity in clinical trials and health care delivery systems, increased funding to support HBCUs, and social justice.
As we think about protecting Black women, our Black girls have to be centered in that conversation, too. Just last month, a Black high school girl was slammed to the ground by a school resource officer in Osceola, Florida. It is yet another instance of Black girls being overpoliced and underprotected in this country. Every time another video like this emerges, it reveals how little care is given to Black girls.
Justice For Black Girls, a nonprofit organization dedicated to honoring and protecting Black girls, was started in 2018 by Brianna Baker. A former social justice educator, Baker says it is important for people to understand how systems of power often perpetuate the abuse of Black girls in schools, prisons and in protest. Her vision of a brighter future means breaking down these structures.
“It’s about doing things to interrupt the school-to-confinement pathways,” Baker told me. “It’s about doing things that make their experiences better, and it’s about not just talking about Black girls after they die, but really being concerned about them living joyous, full, complex and beautiful lives rooted in healing and liberation.”
To build a country full of free Black women means some of the weight must be lifted off our shoulders. We can’t build a more equitable democracy alone. Yes, Black girls are magic — we show up and show out for ourselves and others. But it’s not enough to shout that Black women saved our democracy. It takes all of us to see racism, patriarchy, transphobia and inequity truly break down.
Protecting and respecting Black women means keeping their leadership at the forefront, and getting in the trenches with them when the work is hard, exhausting and often underappreciated. From protests to policy meetings to Pennsylvania Avenue, we all have to keep marching forward.