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Ida B. Wells symposia kicks off six-part series on legacy of 19th century journalist

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Screenshot of speakers at the virtually-held Ida B. Wells Symposia event.

The UNC Center for the Study of the American South is hosting a series of six virtual events entitled “The Light of Truth" throughout the month of October to honor the life and legacy of the 19th century activist and journalist Ida B. Wells.

In partnering with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP and the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition, the CSAS originally scheduled the Ida B. Wells Symposia to take place in person on April 4, said Melody Hunter-Pillion, the associate director of communications and strategy at the CSAS.

“We, much like everybody else right now, had to pivot,” Hunter-Pillion said.

Hunter-Pillion, along with her colleagues Malinda Maynor Lowery and Terri Lorant, worked to reconfigure the event into a virtual format, spread out over the month. 

UNC graduate, New York Times reporter and 2020 Pulitzer Prize recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones, Associated Press editor Ron Nixon and ProPublica reporter and Peabody Award winner Topher Sanders kicked off the month-long series. They discussed the founding and mission of their news trade organization, The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, during a panel on Oct. 3. 

Since its founding in 2016, the Ida B. Wells Society has worked to provide journalists of color, especially those in the field of investigative reporting, with the training and mentorship to compete and succeed. 

“Investigative reporting is the most important kind of reporting in our democracy,” Hannah-Jones said during the event. “It is that kind of reporting that holds power accountable and that exposes the ways in which people wield that power in ways that are harmful to individuals and communities — and yet, that is also the whitest aspect of our profession.”

The Ida B. Wells Society hopes to continue to raise the profiles of minority writers by training Black journalists to not only be successful reporters, but also to be successful editors —  who are often considered to be the “gatekeepers” of the newsroom, Nixon said. 

“We are literally trying to change the face of journalism,” Nixon said during the event. “We don’t want unicorns — it’s too late in the game in the 21st century to be reporting on the ‘first black something.’”

In working to revolutionize the modern day newsroom, Hannah-Jones, Sanders and Nixon often point back to their organization's motto: “Be twice as good.” In finding the stories that simply can’t be rejected and breaking through the nation’s “white narrative,” Sanders said that he has mirrored the life of Ida B. Wells to his own. 

Ida B. Wells was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously on May 4 — the same day Hannah-Jones won hers. But Hannah-Jones said she has always felt a special connection to the 19th century journalist. 

“She always knew her full humanity whether the world recognized it or not,” Hannah-Jones said. “To see that there was a model of the type of woman that I wanted to be who existed during the period of reconstruction was just tremendously affirming to the fact of who Black women have always been.” 

In her Pulitzer Prize winning work, the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones calls for a reframing of the nation’s history, making the narrative of American slavery, which began in 1619, a focal point of the U.S. education system’s curriculum. 

“I think that the wonderful thing that the three panelists do with their work is that they not only inform, but they also create conversation and open dialogue about topics that folks in the country need to talk about and be aware of,” Hunter-Pillion said. “And I like that in these conversations, they are unapologetic about being able to say, ‘Here are my findings and here’s what I think about it.’”

The next event in “The Light of Truth” series, highlighting the history of racial terror and lynchings in Orange County, is set to take place on Thursday, Oct. 8 at 6 p.m.

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