April 2, 2019 will go down in history as a day that transformed Chicago and the nation. The city elected Lori Lightfoot, its first African American woman mayor. Not only is Lightfoot the first openly gay woman to hold the office, she is in an interracial marriage and has an adopted daughter. Lightfoot managed to win every single of Chicago’s fifty wards in a smashing victory against a veteran politician — another African American woman — named Toni Preckwinkle. At just over five feet tall, Lightfoot is brown skinned with a short afro. She is a very successful prosecutor and unlikely politician. Indeed, she has never held an elected office.
In her acceptance speech, Lightfoot mentioned my great-grandmother Ida B. Wells, who also stood around five feet tall: "One day, you will stand on my shoulders, as I stand on the shoulders of so many. The shoulders of strong, black women, like Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks and Annie Ruth Lowery."
Lori Lightfoot embodies the boldness of my great-grandmother, who pushed the boundaries of what was possible for Black women. Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in 1862 and became a formidable journalist, civil rights activist, suffragist, community organizer, social worker, and founder of many organizations including the NAACP. Despite her numerous contributions to this country, Wells is often omitted from the cannon of social justice and women’s rights icons. Last year she was featured in the New York Times “Overlooked” obituary and the city of Chicago recently honored her by renaming a major downtown street into Ida B. Wells Drive.
The path to Lightfoot’s win was partly laid in 1913 by Wells, who founded the Alpha Suffrage Club — the first all-African American group in Illinois to focus on voting rights. That same year she joined thousands in the Washington D.C. suffrage parade and was bold enough to insert herself in the front of the parade with her white counterparts after they asked the Black women to march in the back of the parade. A few years later, in 1915, the organization canvassed the Bronzeville neighborhood on behalf of Oscar DePriest, and helped him become the first African American alderman in Chicago in 1915. In addition to helping men get elected, just ten years after women got the right to vote, Wells herself ran for Illinois state senate in 1930.
Chicago is a racially diverse city. But it is also among the most segregated cities in the country. Despite the fact that it is an economic engine of the Midwest, the city has a major pension deficit, as well as palpable tension between the police department and the African American community. One major concern for many voters is the vast inequities between neighborhoods. Many feel that the development of the downtown area and the North side of the city, which is where most affluent white residents live, has come as a result of disinvestment and neglect of the city’s South and West sides which is where the majority of Black and Latinx residents live. A few years ago there were massive school closures and the shuttering of mental health clinics which disproportionally affected the South and West sides. In addition, many residents feel that they are being excessively taxed and fined with red light cameras and tickets in order to make up for financial shortages that the city faces. Several thousand people became so frustrated with Chicago and its myriad problems that they left, so the city is experiencing a shrinking population.
Pivot points in history have shown us, time and again, unlikely heroes emerge when the air is ripe for change. There is a lot riding on Lightfoot’s shoulders. As the next mayor she will need to bridge the gaps between the haves and the have nots in Chicago. This comes in many forms from economic to educational opportunities to homeownership to city services to trust with the police. But over 70% of the voters seem to think she has the skill set and vision to take the city in a new direction. The City of Big Shoulders is resting on the shoulders of Lightfoot as she stands on the shoulders of pioneering Black women like my great-grandmother Ida B. Wells.
Michelle Duster is an author, speaker, public historian, and writing professor at Columbia College Chicago. She is currently working on a biography of Ida B. Wells for Signal Press. You can follow her on Twitter @michelleduster. Views expressed are her own.