Laura Washington: Film honors the truths illuminated by Chicagoans Ida B. Wells and Richard Hunt

Chicago Tribune – February 26, 2024 at 5:00 a.m.

In Chicago, the light of truth shines.

That’s the message of a new documentary that ties two great Black lives and the truths they illuminated.

Richard Hunt, who passed away in December at 88, was born on the South Side of Chicago. He was the most revered American sculptor of public installations of his time, with more than 150 large-scale sculpture installations around the world.

Ida B. Wells, born enslaved in Mississippi in 1862, died at age 68 on the Chicago’s South Side in 1931. She was an investigative reporter, civil rights activist, writer, orator, scholar and feminist, as well as the co-founder of the Committee of Forty, the precursor to the NAACP.

I  was privileged to know Hunt, an unassuming, soft-spoken legend, who created history-making art in his studio in Lincoln Park, far from the social media frenzy dominating today’s celebrity artist scene. I have studied Wells, a fiery orator and fearless crusader, and aspired to her truth-telling style of journalism.

Hunt and Wells inspired the nation and world through their Black artistry, activism and achievement. Their stories are brilliantly told in “The Light of Truth: A Monument to Ida B. Wells,” a 60-minute documentary film that will be previewed this Wednesday at the Epiphany Center for the Arts in Chicago.

I had the opportunity to view the film. The twinning of these monumental figures in Black history, who lived and thrived in Chicago, tells truths that are both hidden and in plain view.

The Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee commissioned Hunt to build the Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Monument. In 2021, it was unveiled at the site of the Ida B. Wells Homes, a now-demolished public housing development in Bronzeville.

The film is the creation of filmmakers Rana Segal, Laurie Little and Vincent Singleton and narrated by historians, experts, and the friends and family of Wells and Hunt. It chronicles Hunt’s masterful building of the Wells monument and how he and Wells shed a bright light on Black humanity, resilience and achievement.

Wells was born an enslaved person in Holly Springs, Mississippi, before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. She went to college and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. As the editor and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, Wells launched a campaign of editorials and investigations of the lynching of Black men.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett in a photo taken in the 1890s. Wells started the Alpha Suffrage Club in January 1913, one of the first and most important black female suffrage organizations in the state and the city. (Chicago Tribune historical photo)
Ida B. Wells-Barnett is seen in a photo taken in the 1890s. Wells started the Alpha Suffrage Club in January 1913, one of the first and most important Black female suffrage organizations in the state and city. (Chicago Tribune historical photo)

She assiduously documented the murderous trend and, in 1895, published “The Red Record,” an exhaustive investigation of lynching across the United States. For that work, Wells was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2020.

Her exposés sparked threats to her life, so she eventually moved to Chicago, where she teamed up with Frederick Douglass to protest the dearth of Black participation at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Hunt grew up on Chicago’s South Side. In 1955, he was a 19-year-old student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when he attended the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till. While visiting family in Mississippi, Till, 14, was tortured, mutilated and killed by white men. The atrocity inspired Hunt to pursue civil rights and justice through his art. Two years later, the Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased his steel sculpture “Arachne.”

When Hunt was just 35, his work was featured in a retrospective at that museum. He became the most prolific public sculptor in the U.S. and around the world. He is responsible for a repertoire of iconic works, including “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” in homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis and a bronze, “Swing Low,” featured at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

In the foyer of Chicago’s Woodson Regional Library stands the towering “Jacob’s Ladder,” named for the inspirational African American spiritual and forged from massive slices of welded bronze and brass.

The late sculptor Richard Hunt at work in his studio on Aug. 11, 2023. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Sculptor Richard Hunt at work in his studio on Aug. 11, 2023. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

His “Book Bird” was commissioned by former President Barack Obama and is slated to be installed at the Obama Presidential Center.

“The Light of Truth” documentary ties together Hunt, who molded sheets of heavy steel and bronze to honor Black America, with Wells, who crusaded for her people with ink and paper.

One horrendous truth of American history is its virulent racism. Wells kept race front and center long before America’s recent so-called “racial awakening.” Yet, many know her name only in connection with Chicago’s Ida B. Wells Homes, which declined into poverty and violence.

“When people hear Ida B. Wells, they think of the buildings. They forget she was a woman, a person, a hero,” former Chicago 4th Ward Ald. Shirley Newsome, a longtime Bronzeville resident who supported the monument effort, told the Chicago Tribune in 2018.

Okema Lewis, 67, wearing a shirt with images of Ida B. Wells, talks about the monument in honor of journalist and activist Ida B. Wells in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood on June 30, 2021. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune)
Okema Lewis, 67, wearing a shirt featuring images of Ida B. Wells, visits the monument in honor of the journalist and activist in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood on June 30, 2021. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune)

So, the Commemorative Committee tapped Hunt to raise up her legacy. His creation now reigns at 37th Street and South Langley Avenue, near Wells’ former home, towering 35 feet into the sky and weighing 14,000 pounds, according to the filmmakers.

“Ida B. Wells understood Black genius and Black creativity. And she fought for Black people to have the opportunities to develop their talents, to develop their creativity,” Aldon Morris, a Northwestern University professor, told the filmmakers. “And so, I am sure she would be immensely honored by the fact that a great Black sculptor is doing her monument.”

He added: “I think that these are the kinds of people that we do not want to forget, that we want to make monuments for them because they were interested and fighting to transform humanity so that all humanity will be in a more perfect union.”

Through her crusading journalism, Wells revealed the light of truth. Through Hunt’s glinting metal towers, that light soars.

Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist. Her columns appear in the Tribune each Monday. Write to her at


About Epiphany Center for the Arts

Conceived with the vision to return Epiphany to a place for people to congregate, the shuttered, historic Church of the Epiphany has been preserved and adapted into the Epiphany Center for the Arts, an iconic cultural hub “For the Good of Art, Entertainment and Events.” Thoughtfully designed, the exemplary 42,000-square-foot campus located on the artsy edge of Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood boasts three distinct venues (Epiphany Hall, The Sanctuary and The Chase House) and a stunning array of amenities. The campus also features eight galleries that serve as a platform for a diverse selection of artists from Chicago and beyond. Epiphany’s exhibitions showcase the work of women, the LGBTQIA community, artists of color, and the disability culture. Epiphany’s top priority is to curate programming that is inclusive, while providing a place established artists can collaborate with emerging ones. Epiphany’s programming serves to unite community and artists alike while “Bringing Chicago Together.” Visit to learn more.