Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells Barnett, in a photograph by Mary Garrity from c. 1893 (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

On the 88th anniversary of her death, D.C. Public Schools officials announced that the city’s newest public middle school will carry the name of Ida B. Wells, a prominent journalist and civil rights figure.

If approved by the D.C. Council, the name change for what’s currently called the New North Middle School will make that institution the only stand-alone middle school in the District that bears the name of a historically significant African-American woman.

“With the opening of our newest middle school, I am proud to be honoring a pioneering African-American woman who represents everything that we want our students to become,” DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in a March 25 statement.

The first sixth-grade class will enter the school building this fall. With the addition of each subsequent class, Ida B. Wells Middle School will be fully enrolled by the 2021-2022 academic year.

“I thank the community members who have participated in the planning process for Ida B. Wells Middle School and look forward to welcoming our newest cohort of students in the fall,” Ferebee said.

Ida B. Wells, born into slavery three years before the end of the Civil War, battled racism and sexism through journalism and organizing.

After she exposed the brutality of Southern white mob violence in the 1890s, white townspeople burned down the headquarters of her newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech, and forced her to move to Chicago.

Up until her 1931 death, Wells spoke about lynching before international offices, organized with other Black leaders domestically, and challenged white female suffragists who ignored Black women’s strife. She counted also among the founders of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The road to Ida B. Wells Middle School, built on the campus of Coolidge Senior High School in Northwest, started last summer with collaboration between DCPS officials and a community group that included Coolidge alumni and people affiliated with its feeder schools.

Between June and September, the working group collected 50 nominations, nearly three-fourths of which had come from Ward 4 via an online survey. By January, Mayor Muriel Bowser received the final nomination for Ida B. Wells, which had gained popularity among Ward 4 students, parents, and teachers.

Some members of the Coolidge alumni community, like Rashid Darden said that building and naming the New North Middle School after Ida B. Wells shows a commitment to expanding opportunity to growing ethnic populations in the Ward 4 community.

Another significant point he mentioned involved the glaring contrast between Wells and President Calvin Coolidge, for whom his alma mater is named.

“It’s meaningful that the new school, Ida B. Wells, is named for an African-American woman who crusaded against racism through her profession,” said Darden, a 1997 Coolidge graduate and moderator of what’s considered the largest independent online Coolidge alumni group.

“It’s important that this symbol is juxtaposed against the older, white symbolism of Coolidge, who was not a perfect anti-racist, but was a complicated man who did better than most men of his era,” he said. “As a writer and as a teacher, the legacy of Ida B. Wells is one that shows me that not only can we use our professions to advance causes of justice, but we must. It is our moral imperative to use every platform possible to dismantle racism, sexism, and state-sanctioned violence against people of color.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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