Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles highlighting the efforts of women working to impact and improve their hometowns, schools and wider regions. Whether they call themselves activists, students or simply community members, they are profiled, concluding today.
HOLLY SPRINGS • Growing up, there was a time when Leona Harris did not know that she shared a hometown with Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a pioneering African American investigative journalist, civil rights leader, educator and feminist.
Wells-Barnett wrote an expose on lynching after one of her own friends was lynched. Threats eventually forced to move from her then-home of Memphis to Chicago. She would also become active in both the women’s rights movement and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
While growing up in Holly Springs, Harris wasn’t thinking about museum work but wanted to be a professional dancer. A self-described grandmother’s child, Harris said her grandmother encouraged her to think highly of herself. Harris said she does not define her work as activism, as she thinks about activism in political terms.
“My thoughts are very simple. It’s something that my grandmother taught me. What you would call activism, I would call humanitarian. I believe in doing what is right and what is fair to me and to my surroundings and all involved,” Harris said.
She first heard of Wells-Barnett from her humanities professor, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, at Kennedy-King College in Chicago. When Harris said she was from Holly Springs, Burroughs instantly mentioned it as the birthplace of Wells.
“After the class was over, she came to me and talked to me. She introduced herself to me and took me to her home, showed me the work she was doing with her husband and told me about Ida B. Wells and who she was,” Harris said. “Then she introduced me to Ida B. Wells’ daughter Alfreda, and she gave me (Ida B. Wells’ autobiography).”
A study abroad trip traveling along the west coast of Africa sparked the precursor for the museum. Harris took pictures and reported her trip findings and experience for school. Soon, she began showing slideshows regularly in her hometown.
The Ida B. Wells Culture Center eventually formed, and has been a part of the community since the 1970s. For several decades, the museum itself moved locations but was able to find a permanent home in Holly Springs. The museum moved into its current location in 2000.
Harris said she would like the museum to be a state-of-the-art museum in the community. The museum itself is modeled itself after Ida B. Wells-Barnett’ autobiography “Crusade for Justice,” and Harris lauded the ability of Wells-Barnett to fight many different battles successfully.
“Whatever was going on in the community that was wrong, she would always be there to help try to make it right,” Harris said. “That’s what got her in a lot of trouble, which is similar to today, because there are things that we know are the right thing to do, but we don’t do it.”
Harris credits her grandmother for inspiring her to do advocacy in Mississippi. Harris organized during the Civil Rights era, and through her museum work, she hopes to leave the legacy of Wells-Barnett and African Americans for future generations.
“It’s a history that needs to be told,” Harris said. “African American history is a part of American history, and we have to make sure that we tell the complete story.”