If eating at Ida B’s Table conjures feelings of being in the kitchen of its namesake heroine, then stepping into The Archive on the far side of the downtown restaurant feels like being in her living room. With dark bookshelves lined with titles by black authors, soul tunes crooning through the speakers, and framed pictures of the legendary journalist and civil rights activist atop a weathered piano, the spirit of Ida B. Wells fills every corner of the snug space.
The Archive, which quietly opened in November, is a collaboration between Ida B’s and building co-tenants The Real News Network to supplement the restaurant’s mission of serving as a community hub. “It’s a step back in time,” says Eddie Conway chairman of Ida B’s restaurant board and executive producer at TRNN. “The piano, the bar, the period furniture—it’s all to capture what [Wells] would’ve had in her Chicago home.”
Although it has been more than a year since the modern soul food eatery opened its doors, the concept of The Archive—a social space where patrons can work at communal tables or enjoy coffee or cocktails—was always part of the plan.
Inspired by the suffragist’s famous words, “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press,” the management team stocks The Archive with a collection of the written word, including novels, nonfiction, and kids’ books, as well as politically inspired recommendations from TRNN staff and biographical and cooking-related choices from the Ida B’s team. The wide variety of reading materials are available for guests to page through during their visit or purchase for their own libraries.
“People can take their time browsing—they can read for hours if they want to,” says Conway. “We’d rather people come in, read these books, and put them back than not read them at all.”
In keeping with the restaurant’s commitment to educating, feeding, and empowering guests, The Archive also acts as a cozy gathering space for activists, organizations, and even book clubs. Since the room is practically teeming with reminders of Wells’ legacy—from black-and-white family photos to her anti-lynching newspaper clippings—Conway hopes it will inspire the next generation of local change-makers to follow her lead and organize for a cause.
“That’s what we’re trying to do—not just educate people, but encourage them to get involved,” says Conway. “Hopefully someone will call a meeting in this room and, who knows, become the next great leader of a cause that could make real change.”