A key figure in black feminism and the civil rights movement is Ida B Wells. As far back as 1883, Wells protested the injustices suffered by African Americans when she refused to leave her first-class seat in the so-called “white” coach. She was recently made into the main subject of a mosaic portrait.
Commemorating 100 Years
To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment — which gave women the right to vote — Washington Union Station installed a 1,000-square-foot mosaic of Wells. It was on display from August 24 to August 28, 2020, in time for Women’s Equality Day on August 26. It took six people to assemble this handmade mosaic.
There could have been no better choice for a mosaic than Ida B Wells, as Wells personifies both women’s rights with the Black Lives Matter movement. Just as important as ever, Black Lives Matter has gained more traction in recent months due to the multiple killings of African Americans by police and the protests these deaths have sparked.
Who Was Ida B Wells?
Ida B Wells was born a slave in Mississippi on July 16, 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation occurred around six months later, decreeing her and the rest of her family free. Despite this, living in Mississippi meant she still suffered from discrimination.
Wells moved to Memphis Tennessee when she was around 20 years old and became a civil rights journalist. She published articles about race and politics in African American newspapers and later became the owner of two periodicals.
However, it was her experience on the train that inspired Wells to take a bigger role in the civil rights and suffragist movements.
Wells’s Refusal to Give Up Her Seat
Upon finding Wells in the rear coach, the conductor of the train claimed that her seat was for white passengers only. He told Wells that she needed to move to another section: one that tended to be filled with tobacco smoke and occupied by drunks. She refused and fought back — she even bit the conductor. In fact, Wells did not leave her seat until three men pulled her away and removed her from the train.
But this wasn’t the end. Wells sued the railroad company and won a settlement of $500 — the amount is equivalent to about $13,000 in today’s money. However, the case went to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which overturned the decision of the lower court in favor of the railroad company.
Following her experience on the train, Wells became an activist for many black causes. As a teacher, she was vocal about ending segregation in schools.
She also began an anti-lynching crusade after a friend and his two business partners were murdered by a white mob for setting up a grocery store. The white owner of another grocery store in the area was angry that the new store would take business away from him. Along with a large group of supporters, he attacked the black men. This led to a shooting and resulted in the arrest of just the three African Americans. Before the men could receive a trial, a lynch mob arrived at the jail and murdered them.
After the event, Wells began traveling around the South, researching other lynchings. The newspaper articles she published ended up putting her life at risk and she had to relocate to the North. While living there, she founded several groups for African American justice.
The Ida B Wells Mosaic
The official title of the mosaic was Our Story: Portraits of Change. This reflects the fact that the mosaic was about so much more than one person. In fact, each custom mosaic tile was a photo of a different woman who played a role in the suffragist movement. In total, around five thousand people were represented in the mosaic.
There was also historical relevance in choosing Union Station for the location. It was here that the suffragists who were arrested for picketing the White House took a train back home after being released for jail. Of course, it was also an incident on a train that heavily influenced Wells’s life.
Although the mosaic has now been dismantled, it remains available to view thanks to an interactive version. You can zoom in on some of the individual tiles to see the photos and learn the stories of the women pictured. This means the mosaic is accessible to everyone — no matter where you are in the world — and allows this mosaic art to last much longer than just its exhibition.
About the Artist and Production Team
Artist Helen Marshall designed the mosaic. This is Marshall’s second suffrage art piece, the first being The Face of Suffrage, another floor mosaic made up of photos of women. The first mosaic commemorated 100 years of the right to vote for women in the UK and was displayed at Birmingham New Street Station. There is a large amount of overlap in terms of both significance and style between the two pieces!
The mosaic was produced by Christina Korp of Purpose Entertainment (which creates meaningful projects). The Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission (WSCC) sponsored its installation.
Why a Mosaic?
The idea of installing a mosaic in a public place dates back to ancient times. It was common to display mosaic art in a location where many people would be able to experience it, examine every detail, and even touch the mosaic designs.
Early pieces were stone or glass mosaic art, but it’s now possible to use a wide variety of materials. This allows us to express much more through the art. The Ida B Wells mosaic with its many photographs as tiles is a prime example of this.
It is thanks to mosaics that we understand various facets of history, such as ideologies. Plus, mosaics mean that portraits of important figures are preserved. Artists can depict virtually any picture with a mosaic — from simple patterns to intricate designs that take many hours to complete — imparting whatever meaning they want on the artwork. The materials and construction techniques mean that mosaics preserve much better than other types of art, allowing the artist to immortalize an idea.
Whereas modern methods of recording information mean that mosaics are no longer a necessity, creating mosaic art today allows us to continue a long-held tradition. The Ida B Wells mosaic immortalizes both an ideology and a figure.
This is arguably the perfect time to release a mosaic of Ida B Wells. More than 100 years ago, Wells was petitioning for policies to protect African Americans from lynchings. Today, lynchings have evolved into police violence, and racism is still present in society in countless ways. This mosaic is a reminder of the contribution Wells and so many other women made — and of how much further we still have to go.