More Than a Marker: Celebrating the Work of Alpha Suffrage Club

Illinois Tech Commemorates the Legacy of the Ida B. Wells-Led Group that Promoted the Right for Black Women to Vote

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By Andrew Wyder

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Nearly 110 years ago, near the intersection of 31st Street and State Street in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first organization established to promote the right for Black women to vote in Illinois, was founded by Ida B. Wells on January 30, 1913.

Wells (later known as Wells-Barnett), who was an educator, journalist, anti-lynching crusader, civil rights activist, and suffragist during her remarkable career, led the club, which met every Wednesday evening at the Negro Fellowship League, located at 3005 South State Street. The group aimed to educate Black and working-class women on civic matters and the importance of voting rights as a path to the election of African-American candidates to political office, despite largely being excluded from the existing local and national suffrage organizations.

A parking lot outside of Keating Sports Center, at the northern edge of Illinois Institute of Technology’s Mies Campus, now sits at that intersection. There had been no indication that an organization of such importance once called that same location home—until now.

On Friday, October 1, Illinois Tech, in conjunction with the Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation, the Bronzevillle Historical Society, and the League of Women Voters–Chicago, unveiled a commemorative marker in honor of the Alpha Suffrage Club on the northeast corner of 31st and State streets. Illinois Tech President Raj Echambadi and Illinois State Representative Kambium “Kam” Buckner (26th District) spoke at the event, along with Michelle Duster, an author, speaker, and professor who is a member of the Wells/Barnett/Duster family, and Lori Osborne of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites.

In front a crowd of approximately 50 people on a beautiful, sunny morning, Echambadi opened the ceremony by speaking about the importance of continuing Wells’s work, specifically in terms of ensuring that education is a human right that should be afforded to all and in following Wells’s legacy by redoubling efforts to increase gender diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, and in bringing people who are differently abled together to achieve great things.

“This is my commitment to the Illinois Tech community and the Bronzevillle community, that the message I take from Ida B. Wells is that every voice should be heard, every experience should be respected, and every identity should be honored,” Echambadi said. “That, to me, is the large lesson that looms in front of us.”

The marker is a part of the National Votes for Women Trail, which is a project of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites. Osborne, who is the Illinois coordinator for the women’s trail and a member of the collaborative’s Board of Directors, said that the marker is the fourth in Illinois as part of the National Votes for Women Trail, which totals more than 2,000 sites and more than 230 markers around the country. 

“My hope is that this marker will help tell the story of not only my great grandmother Ida B. Wells, but the story of the United States,” Duster said. “People now are sort of pushing for this fantasy of what the United States history is, and so this marker…will serve a purpose in telling the truth about the fact that people have to fight in order to have first-class citizenship.”

As much of a celebration that the event was of Wells and the remarkable work she accomplished in her life, the marker serves as a reminder that it took a great deal of perseverance and effort for the Alpha Suffrage Club to accomplish all that it did.  

“I want to thank Illinois Tech, not just for honoring history but for your role in making history and recognizing history as well,” Buckner said. “We know that with the persistence that these women had, if we bottle that up and use it for ourselves, that we also can change the world.”

The event was a project of Illinois Tech’s Office of Community Affairs and Outreach Programs.

Photo: [From left] Sherry Williams of the Bronzeville Historical Society, Illinois Tech President Raj Echambadi, Michelle Duster, and Dan Duster

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