Ida B. Wells

Jun 5th, 2011 | By | Category: Activism, Journalism & Law
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Ida B. Wells 1862 – 1931  Ida B. Wells devoted her life to social justice for Blacks and women. She became a world-famous writer and campaigner in support of these causes, published important treatises on the origins and nature of “mob rule” and the lynching of African Americans in the south, and helped to organize the women’s suffrage movement and the NAACP.

Diligent Love of Learning

Wells was born on July 16, 1862 to two slaves in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the eldest of eight children, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father, James, was a skilled carpenter; her mother, Elizabeth, was an accomplished cook. Both embraced their freedom with a diligent love of learning, which they imparted to their children. Wells attended the newly-formed Shaw University with her mother.

While visiting her grandmother’s farm in the country in 1878, a yellow fever epidemic killed Wells’ parents and one sibling. Only 16 years old, she was urged to break up the family and pursue her own education but refused. By masquerading as an 18-year-old, Wells gained employment as a teacher in a nearby country school, spending weekends at home with her charges, “…washing, ironing, and cooking for the children.” Five years later they joined an aunt in Memphis, Tennessee, and Wells found work in a school in nearby Woodstock. She spent her vacations taking training courses at Lemoyne Institute and Fisk University, which qualified her to teach in the Memphis city schools, where she had a seven-year tenure teaching first grade.

One of several seminal events in Wells’ life took place on the train ride to Woodstock in 1884. At that time, railroads were required to offer equal treatment to Blacks, but many ignored this willfully. Wells was ordered by the conductor to leave the first-class car (for which she had paid) and to move to a Black “Jim Crow” car. She refused, resisted physically (even biting the conductor on the hand), and had to be carried out by three men to the applause of the all-white passengers. Wells sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company in the first such case in the South. She won the verdict in circuit court, but was reversed on appeal at the State Supreme Court level.

Wells wrote about the experience for a Black church publication, The Living Way, and received an immediate positive response. The editor asked her to continue. Her reputation spread, and her work appeared in prominent African American publications nationwide with insightful and scathing reviews of the conditions of Black life, discrimination, and inferior education. She accepted an offer in 1889 to become editor of Free Speech and Headlight, a small Memphis newspaper, where her bold editorials ultimately led to her dismissal by the Memphis School Board for criticizing the conditions in Black schools.

A second incident followed in 1892. With mob violence, lynching, and the Ku Klux Klan’s “Reign of Terror” ascendant in the South, three friends of Wells opened a grocery store across the street from a white-owned shop. Angered by the competition, a white mob attacked and the Black men defended themselves, wounding three attackers for which they were jailed. A second mob formed the next day, forcibly removed the Blacks from their jail cells, and killed them. Wells responded with an editorial urging all Blacks to leave Memphis.

Six thousand heeded her advice, and Wells’ anti-lynching crusade was born. Remaining in Memphis, she continued editorializing and organizing, and also began research into the causes of lynching. Her first publication on the subject, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” found that the charges against lynching victims were often trivial or discriminatory (e.g., theft of hogs, disrespecting whites) and, more sensationally, that one-third of all charges against Black men were for the rape of white women, often despite evidence of consensual relations between the parties. In response, an outraged white mob attacked her newspaper office, destroyed the printing presses, and threatened to kill her.

Devoted to Social Justice

Wells relocated to Chicago, and began publishing articles in The New York Age while speaking throughout the Northeast. She traveled to England, Scotland, and Wales in 1893, learning from the civic activist groups of British women and using international opinion to pressure U.S. politicians. Returning to Chicago, she helped to establish the first Black women’s civic clubs there and in Boston, as well as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. Her interest in women’s suffrage grew in parallel, bringing her into close contact with Jane Addams and Susan B. Anthony. Along with Addams, Wells blocked the creation of segregated schools in Chicago.

Her work continued with “A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1894.” This expanded on her earlier research using unimpeachable white sources, with similarly disturbing conclusions. Wells advanced the theory that lynching was, at root, based on deep white fears and an effort to prevent Blacks from attaining economic independence. At age 33, Wells married the Chicago activist, lawyer, and publisher Ferdinand L. Barnett in 1895. Barnett had founded the city’s first Black newspaper, the Conservator, and Wells now took over as editor. She continued touring and speaking through the birth and infancy of her first child, but with the birth of a second son the following year she began to spend more time at home devoted to their upbringing. Two daughters followed in 1901 and 1904.

By 1910, with Jim Crow, discrimination, and lynching still national problems, she returned to public life and formed the Negro Fellowship League. Wells was one of the founding organizers of the NAACP (one of only two African American women so involved), although her radical stance created conflict with the Association’s mainstream leadership. She founded the first Black women’s suffrage organization, the Alpha Suffrage Club, in 1913 and met with President McKinley that year. Wells reported on race riots nationwide in the period following World War I, and began writing her autobiography, “Crusade for Justice,” in 1928, stating “The history of this entire period which reflected glory on the race should be known.”

Although unsuccessful, her 1930 race for a seat in the Illinois state senate (one of the first Black woman to run for public office in the U.S.) was a fitting capstone to a life of bold action. For the remainder of her life, she focused her efforts on improving the living conditions in Chicago’s black ghetto. A public housing project there is named in her honor. Wells died at the age of 69 on March 25, 1931.


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