I came across the name Ida B. Wells when I was looking for quotes for Black History Month. I had not heard about her before. We have something in common-journalism. Ida was also a newspaper editor. She was married to Ferdinand L. Barnett, a newspaper owner. She was an early leader in the civil rights movement. She documented lynching in the United States, showing how it was often a way to control or punish blacks who competed with whites. She was active in the women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement, establishing several notable women’s organizations. Wells was a skilled and persuasive rhetorician, and traveled internationally on lecture tours.
Ida was born born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, just before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father was a carpenter and both he and her mother were enslaved until they were freed under the Proclamation one year after she was born.
Ida’s father James was a master at carpentry and known as a “race man”, someone who worked for the advancement of blacks. He was very interested in politics, and was a member of the Loyal League. He attended public speeches and campaigned for local black candidates, but he never ran for office. Her mother Elizabeth was a cook for the Bolling household before her death from yellow fever. She was a religious woman who was very strict with her children. Wells’ parents took their children’s education very seriously. They wanted their children to take advantage of having the opportunity to be educated and attend school.
Ida attended Shaw University (now Rust College in Holly Springs), a school for freed people but was later expelled for rebellious behavior and temper after confronting the president of the college. While she was visiting her grandmother she learned that her hometown had suffered a yellow fever epidemic. Tragically, at the age of 16, she lost her parents and 10 month old brother. The 1878 epidemic swept through the South claiming many lives.
Following the funerals, friends and relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children should be sent to various foster homes. Wells resisted this solution. To keep her younger siblings together as a family, she dropped out of Rust College and found work as a teacher in a black elementary school. (The schools were racially segregated.) Her grandmother Peggy Wells, along with other friends and relatives, stayed with the children during the week while she was away teaching. Without this help, she would have not been able to keep her siblings together. She resented that white teachers were paid $80 a month in public schools when she was paid only $30 a month. This discrimination made her more interested in the politics of race and improving the education of blacks.
In 1883, Wells took three of her younger siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with her aunt and to be closer to other family members. She found she could earn higher wages there as a teacher. Soon after moving, she was hired in Woodstock for the Shelby County school system. During her summer vacations, she attended summer sessions at Fisk University, ahistorically black college in Nashville; its graduates were well respected in the black community. She also attended LeMoyne Institute. Wells held strong political opinions and provoked many people with her views on women’s rights. When she was 24, she wrote, “I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge.”
On May 4, 1884, a train conductor Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad ordered Wells to give up her seat and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. The year before, Supreme Court had struck down the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Several railroad companies continued legal racial segregation of their passengers, especially when traveling in the South.
Wells refused to give up her seat, 71 years before the activist Rosa Parks showed similar resistance on a bus. The conductor and two men dragged Wells out of the car. When she returned to Memphis, she hired an African-American attorney to sue the railroad. Wells became a public figure in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train. When her lawyer was paid off by the railroad, she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884, when the local circuit court granted her a $500 settlement. The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling in 1887. It concluded, “We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride.” Wells was ordered to pay court costs.
While she taught elementary school, Ida was offered an editorial position at for the Evening Star. She also wrote weekly articles for The Living Way weekly newspaper under the pen name”Iola.” She gained a reputation for writing about the race issue in the United States. In 1889, she became co-owner and editor of Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregationist newspaper that was started by Rev R. Nightingale and was based at the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis. It published articles about racial injustice.
In March 1892 racial tensions were rising in Memphis and violence was becoming the norm. Three of Ida’s friends owned a grocery store which was doing good business and was seen as competitive with a white owned grocery store across the street. While Ida was out of town in Mississippi, a white lynch mob invaded her friends’ store. During the altercation, three white men were shot and injured. Ida’s friends, Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were arrested and jailed. A large lynch mob stormed the jail cells and killed the three men.
After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote in Free Speech and Headlight, urging blacks to leave Memphis:
There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.
Wells emphasized the public spectacle of the lynching. Over 6,000 blacks did leave; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. After being threatened with violence, Wells bought a pistol. She later wrote, “They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth.”
The murders of her friends drove Ida to research and document lynchings and their causes. She began investigative journalism, looking at the charges given for the murders. She officially started her anti-lynching campaign. She spoke on the issue at various black women’s clubs, and raised more than $500 to investigate lynchings and publish her results. Wells found that blacks were lynched for such reasons as failing to pay debts, not appearing to give way to whites, competing with whites economically, being drunk in public. She published her findings in a pamphlet entitled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases”.
She wrote an article that suggested that, unlike the myth that white women were sexually at risk of attacks by black men, most liaisons between black men and white women were consensual. While she was away in Philadelphia, a mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight on May 27, 1892 in retaliation for her controversial articles, three months after her three friends were lynched.
Ida spoke to groups in New York which included many leading African American women. She was forced to move from Memphis to Chicago because of death threats but she continued to wage her anti-lynching campaign and to write columns attacking Southern injustices. Her articles were published in The New York Age newspaper. Her writings continued to investigate the incidents that were referred to as causes for lynching black men. Along with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders, Ida organized a black boycott of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for its failure to collaborate with the black community on exhibits representing African-American life.
Ida met her husband when she was contemplating filing a libel suit against two black Memphis attorneys. The attorney she turned to for help was deeply in debt and could not afford to help but he asked his friend Ferdinand L. Barnett if he could. Barnett accepted the pro bono job. Born in Alabama, Barnett had become the editor of the Chicago Conservator in 1878. He was an assistant state attorney for 14 years. Ida and Ferdinand married in 1895. She set an early precedent as being one of the first married American women keep her own last name along with her husband’s. The couple had four children. Ida later described in her autobiography how difficult it was for her to split her time between her family and her work. She continued to work after the birth of her first child, traveling and bringing the infant Charles with her. Although she tried to balance her worlds, she could not be as active in her work. After having her second child, Ida stepped out of her touring and public life for a time, as she could no longer balance her job with her family.
Although she struggled to juggle family and work, Ida was still a fierce campaigner in the anti-lynching circle. Ida B. Wells took two tours to Europe on her campaign for justice, the first in 1893 and the second in 1894. While she was in Europe she spent her time in both Scotland and England, where she gave many speeches and newspaper interviews.In 1892 she published a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and A Red Record, 1892–1894, which documented research on a lynching. Having examined many accounts of lynching based on alleged “rape of white women,” she concluded that Southerners concocted rape as an excuse to hide their real reason for lynchings: black economic progress, which threatened not only white Southerners’ pocketbooks, but also their ideas about black inferiority.
The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.
Notes to Women salutes this tenacious woman who used their journalistic writing to condemn lynching. Her life reveals a tenacity to push ahead despite every obstacle- to promote an idea and use every possible resource at ones disposal. Wells used her position as a teacher, a community member, a political activist, a mother, an editor, and an ordinary citizen to disseminate her rhetorical work. Her grandchildren have established a museum, a scholarship, a yearly birthday celebration, and a website to continue her extraordinary and historically remarkable work.Her life is the subject of a widely performed musical drama, which debuted in 2006, by Tazewell Thompson, Constant Star. The play sums her up:
…A woman born in slavery, she would grow to become one of the great pioneer activists of the Civil Rights movement. A precursor of Rosa Parks, she was a suffragist,newspaper editor and publisher, investigative journalist, co-founder of the NAACP, political candidate, mother, wife, and the single most powerful leader in the anti-lynching campaign in America. A dynamic, controversial, temperamental, uncompromising race woman, she broke bread and crossed swords with some of the movers and shakers of her time: Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frances Willard, and President McKinley. By any fair assessment, she was a seminal figure in Post-Reconstruction America.
We thank her for introducing us to investigative journalism and for showing us that the pen is mightier than the sword.
If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service.
Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.
What becomes a crime deserving capital punishment when the tables are turned is a matter of small moment when the negro woman is the accusing party.