A Massive Ida B. Wells Portrait Honoring The 19th Amendment Is Coming To Union Station This week marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
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NPR logo A Massive Ida B. Wells Portrait Honoring The 19th Amendment Is Coming To Union Station

A Massive Ida B. Wells Portrait Honoring The 19th Amendment Is Coming To Union Station

An artist's rendering of the Ida B. Wells portrait in Union Station. Courtesy of/Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission hide caption

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Courtesy of/Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission

A 1000-square-foot art installation depicting suffragist and civil rights advocate Ida B. Wells will go on display in D.C.'s Union Station on Aug. 24.

British artist Helen Marshall created the portrait of Wells out of around 5,000 historic, black-and-white photographs from the suffrage movement.

"We need to see her portrait, and African American women need to be a lot more visible," Marshall says. "She was fighting for the same causes that women are now."

Marshall was tapped for the project — which will be up through August 28 — after she created a massive portrait of a British suffragist and installed it in a train station in Birmingham in the U.K. Her American piece was commissioned by the Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission, created by Congress to commemorate the 19th Amendment's centennial anniversary. The amendment granted women the right to vote.

Many key moments in the suffrage movement took place in the District — including at Union Station.

In 1919, suffragists launched a cross-country awareness-building tour from Union Station called The Prison Special. Many of the women had been arrested and imprisoned in workhouses after picketing outside the White House two years prior. They wore their prison uniforms while on the train and at rallies across the U.S.

A group of suffragists at Union Station in 1914, including Rose Winslow, Lucy Burns, Doris Stevens and Jessie Mackaye. Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress hide caption

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Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress

Wells was one of the movement's most tireless advocates for suffrage, though, as a Black woman, was often cast aside by fellow activists. Still, she became a vocal advocate for women's equality, racial equality, and anti-lynching efforts around the turn of the 19th century.

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"She was an absolute hero of this movement," says Anna Laymon, the suffrage commission's executive director. "There's nobody more deserving of recognition."

Although Wells wasn't part of the Prison Special, a train did play a central role in her story. While riding on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1884, she was ordered to give up her seat in a first-class ladies car. She refused, only to be dragged out of the car by train employees. She sued the railroad, and though she ultimately lost, she continued to fight for women's and racial equality for years.

Besides Wells' portrait, the suffrage commission has launched a number of other projects to highlight the centennial. It is producing two podcasts — one for adults, one for kids — in partnership with the podcasting company PRX about women's fight for the vote.

Then, on Aug. 26, buildings all over the city and the country will be lit with purple and gold (the two colors most associated with the suffrage movement). The White House, Smithsonian Castle, Library of Congress, DAR Constitution Hall, National Archives, and the Kennedy Center are all participating.

The commission is employing social media to bring the Wells photo project to people outside the D.C. region and to area residents who don't want to go outside during the pandemic. An interactive online version of the mosaic allows viewers to zoom in on photos and learn more about the suffragists.

Meanwhile, a Snapchat filter launching Aug. 26 will allow users to turn their selfies into vintage photos. When they zoom out, their photos will appear as part of a virtual representation of the mosaic.

Marshall hopes some people will decide to make an in-person trip to Union Station and share photos of the piece online.

"They can tag us," she says, "and then we can continue the storytelling."

"Our Story: Portraits of Change Mosaic of Ida B. Wells" will be on display at Union Station from Aug. 24-28.

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