Ida B Wells was a journalist, civil rights activist and female suffrage campaigner. Born into slavery, she was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation but grew up amongst widespread discrimination and racial prejudice. As a campaigning journalist, she highlighted the issue of lynching, racial discrimination and injustice in American society. She also helped to found many influential civil rights groups, such as the NAACP. Her outspoken views caused widespread opposition and threats to her own safety. But, throughout her life, she maintained a courageous stance to promote greater equality in American society and document the troubles of Afro-Americans. She wrote:
“If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service,”
Ida was born into slavery on 16 July 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed her from the institution of slavery. Unusually for the time, she was able to gain an education at Rust College in Holly Springs. Her father had been one of the trustees who founded the college (then called Shaw college) However, aged 16 both her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic; to keep her family together, she got a job as a teacher and looked after her younger siblings.
Ida moved to Memphis where she worked as a teacher; she also continued to study in the vacations. She developed strong views about the unfairness of American society. She felt a double discrimination against both black Americans and also women. At the time, very few black women were politically active or willing to challenge the existing social order, but Ida, who was physicallty slight – standing only five feet tall – felt a compulsion to speak out and defend the rights and honour of Afro-Americans.
“It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed … 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.”
—Ida B Wells (1892, Southern Horrors)
Her fighting spirit is characterised by an incident on a segregated train. On 4 May 1884, she was ordered by a train conductor to leave the (white) first-class women’s carriage (despite having a ticket) and move to the third class carriage (blacks) at the back. She refused and later said she “fastened her teeth on the back of his hand (of the conductor)” She was unceremoniously thrown off the train. She sued the railroad company and was initially successful, beibng awarded $500 in damages. However, on appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the decision and made Ida pay court costs.
“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
As well as teaching, Wells gained employment as a journalist writing articles for The Evening Star in Washington and weekly magazines, such as Free Speech and The Living Way. Wells wrote about social conditions and criticised the inequality of segregated schools. Her strident criticisms of black schools in Memphis led to her losing her teaching jobs as the authorities felt aggrieved.
In 1899, she became aware of the lynching of three black men who had been defending their grocery store – named “The People’s Grocery” in South Memphis. After defending their store from attack by a white gang, the men were arrested for murder. Before, trial the accused men were taken from prison and summarily shot in a train yard. Ida began writing about this and other reports of lynching. At the time, lynchings were common, and the proponents justified them on the grounds they were dealing with ‘black criminals’ – the lynched were often accused of ‘raping white women’ Through her investigative journalism, Wells explained that lynching was a device for threatening blacks – especially those who provided economic competition – as in the case of the new grocery store. In many ways, Wells journalism used pioneering techniques for appealing to people’s human sympathies. She always sought to give the victims of lynching names and tell their personal story – a powerful way of changing the narrative to a more human story of injustice. Writing in the magazine Free Speech, she said
“Nobody in this section of the country believes the threadbare old lie that Negro men rape white women,”
She said lynching was just:
“an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘the nigger down,’ ”
Wells willingness to write about consensual interracial sex and her expose of the hypocrisy and injustice of white lynching made her an enemy in the south, and after one provocative editorial, her newspaper offices were burned to the ground. Fortunately for Wells, she was in New York at the time, but for her safety, she didn’t return to the south for many years. She continued to research lynching and published a pamphlet The Red Record which detailed accounts from white newspapers and statistics on the prevalence of lynching in the south. Wells made considerable progress in raising the issue of lynching – especially in the north. However, Wells felt the odds were stacked against black people. From the 1880s, the south had started passing “Jim Crow’ laws to effectively disenfranchise blacks from voting, education and high office. With a political system biased against her people, she argued that Afro-Americans were justified in resorting to violence to protect themselves from lynching. This justification of violence was highlighted by her political opponents who tried to portray her as a ‘race provocateur’.
In 1893 and 1894, Wells travelled to Britain where she went on a speaking tour, highlighting the issue of lynching and racism in America. She hoped that raising awareness in a powerful white country would put pressure on America to deal with the issue. Her speaking tour was successful in raising the issue, and it made her a prominent figure back in the US. She served as a journalist for the white Republican newspaper Daily Inter-Ocean – becoming the first African-American women to be paid by a white mainstream newspaper. Although she was frequently criticised and misquoted in America, it gave the issue greater importance.
Back in America in 1895, she married Ferdinand L. Barnett, an attorney with similar political views and activism. She became Wells-Barnett. Her husband Barnett was also committed to the cause of civil rights having written frequently on the issue of lynching. During their marriage, they co-operated closely on political issues. Unusually for the time, Barnett would sometimes cook meals and look after her four children, while Wells was away on speaking tours.
An example of Wells’ activism was her efforts to seek progress on lynching, which continued to become more prevalent. In 1901, she wrote to the anti-lynching Bureau
“There were 135 human beings that met death at the hands of mobs during this year. Not only is the list larger than for four years past, but the barbarism of this lawlessness is on the increase. Six human beings were burned alive between January 1st 1901 and Jan. 1st 1902…. We can only change public sentiment and enforce laws by educating the people., giving them facts.” Ida B. Wells to the Anti-Lynching Bureau.
Wells moved to Chicago where she continued to work on civil rights issues and increasingly on the issue of women’s suffrage. She was active in the Women’s club movement and worked to encourage women’s involvement in politics. She worked with Susan B. Anthony.
Wells was one of the more radical activists, who pioneered the use of boycotts a tactic that would become more widely used in the 1950s and 60s civil rights movement. For example, in 1893 she helped, with Frederick Douglass to organise a black boycott of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago – for its exclusion of African Americans.
Wells was appreciated and supported by many figures in the civil rights movement – especially Frederick Douglass who actively supported Wells. However, her outspoken views and tendency to find a reason to criticise those close to her often made her a controversial figure. Some felt she was too radical and outspoken. In civil rights, W. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were becoming the dominant spokesmen for black rights and they tended to favoure a more moderate approach based on incremental economic improvements. Within the Women’s suffrage movement, she was not always welcome with aspects of the women’s suffrage movement wanting to focus only on getting women the vote and not the issue of civil rights for African-Americans..
She clashed with Frances Willard, the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Willard combined campaigning for women’s suffrage with temperance (prohibition of alcohol). Wells criticised for Willard for past comments were she blamed African Americans for being attracted to alcohol.
On one national march for women’s suffrage in Washington in 1913, the American women’s suffrage movement (NASWA) wanted to keep the Chicago delegation entirely white and the Afro-American suffragists should march at the back. Wells ignored their wishes. She stood in the crowd and then joined the NASWA when they marched past.
During the First World War, Wells was placed under surveillance as a ‘race agitator.’ After the war, she returned to the south to report on race riots and help organise African-American workers rights. She also worked as a probation officer seeking to deal with issues around mass incarceration. In 1930, she stood for office in the Illinois Senate as an independent, though gained only a few votes.
After a year of ill health, Wells died of kidney disease on 25 March 1931 in Chicago. She was 68. In her later years, she had become overshadowed by more moderate voices in the orthodox civil rights and women’s suffrage movement. However, over time, her pioneering legacy of social activism was increasingly appreciated by a later generation of civil rights activists who felt that more direct action was needed to overturn segregation and discrimination.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Ida B. Wells Biography”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. Published 18 July 2019.
Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching
Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching by Paula J Giddings at Amazon
“I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. If I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.” (source)
“The Negro has suffered much and is willing to suffer more. He recognizes that the wrongs of two centuries can not be righted in a day, and he tries to bear his burden with patience for today and be hopeful for tomorrow. But there comes a time when the veriest worm will turn, and the Negro feels today that after all the work he has done, all the sacrifices he has made, and all the suffering he has endured, if he did not, now, defend his name and manhood from this vile accusation, he would be unworthy even of the contempt of mankind. It is to this charge he now feels he must make answer.”
“It is his regret, that, in his own defense, he must disclose to the world that degree of dehumanizing brutality which fixes upon America the blot of a national crime. Whatever faults and failings other nations may have in their dealings with their own subjects or with other people, no other civilized nation stands condemned before the world with a series of crimes so peculiarly national. It becomes a painful duty of the Negro to reproduce a record which shows that a large portion of the American people avow anarchy, condone murder and defy the contempt of civilization.”
The Red Record (1895)
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