Activist Ida B. Wells Gets Pulitzer Prize 137 Years After Refusing to Exit 'Whites Only' Train
The civil rights icon received the award for her "outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching"
Ida B. Wells, a leader in the civil rights movement who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has been honored with a Pulitzer Prize.
Wells was given the prestigious 2020 award in Special Citations and Awards on Monday for "her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching," according to the Pulitzer Prize website.
The honor comes 136 years after Wells refused to leave a "whites only" train and was dragged off on May 4, 1884, despite the fact that she had purchased a first-class ticket, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
"It's an amazing honor. For her work to still be relevant today, so many decades after she actually did the work, is a testament to how important are the contributions she made to this country," Michelle Duster, Wells' great-granddaughter, told the outlet in a statement.
"The Pulitzer Prize is an extremely top honor for anyone to receive when at the time she was living, she was considered extremely controversial and militant and difficult and called all kinds of things that weren't nice," Duster added. "But she endured it all and stayed steadfast and focused on her mission — which was having the truth exposed to create change."
Born into a family of slaves on July 16, 1862 — just months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — Wells worked as a teacher as she completed her education, and eventually became a journalist, sharing stories about the injustices that Blacks often faced, according to The New York Times.
Around that time, she also started to organize protests and boycotts. One of her most well-known ones was the train incident in 1884, which ultimately resulted in Wells suing the railroad company a year later, the Times reported.
Though she lost on appeal before the Tennessee Supreme Court, that didn't stop Wells from speaking up against racism.
She continued her efforts through the years by organizing a crusade against the lynchings of African Americans in the 1890s during the Jim Crow era, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Wells also played a major role in the formation of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and the NAACP in 1909.
After a life filled with impactful writing and activism, Wells died in Chicago on March 25, 1931, from kidney failure. She was 68.
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"She faced a lot of danger, a lot of criticism and a lot of loss during her lifetime, in exposing the truth about the brutality and the extent of lynching," Duster told the outlet. "I’m sure the Pulitzer Prize was not on her radar while she was alive."
"Considering the fact that she did not have the right to vote until well into her 50s, and she didn’t have any economic power, the only thing she really had was the truth," she added. "She was using journalism as a form of activism, and that was her voice.”
In addition to Wells' honor, the Pulitzer board announced on their website that the award would be coming with a bequest of at least $50,000 "in support of her mission," though the recipients of that will be named at a later date.
The civil rights icon joins a number of influential figures who have already received the award in this category, including Aretha Franklin in 2019, John Coltrane in 2007, Duke Ellington in 1999, and Alex Haley in 1977, according to the site.