By Kiilu Nyasha
A tireless champion of her people, Ida B. Wells was the first of eight children born to Jim and Elizabeth Wells in Mississippi in 1862, six months before chattel slavery was ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Her parents, who had been slaves, were able to support their children because Elizabeth was an excellent cook and Jim a skilled carpenter. But when Ida was only 16, her parents and youngest sibling died of Yellow Fever during an epidemic. In keeping with the strength and fortitude she demonstrated throughout her remarkable life, Ida took responsibility for raising her six younger siblings with her grandmother’s help. Educated at nearby Rust College, a school run by white missionaries, Ida was forced to drop out; she got a full-time teaching job by lying about her age, and spent weekends washing, ironing and cooking for her large family.
Wells eventually moved to Memphis, Tenn., where she taught school in a small town called Woodstock and continued her education by attending Fisk University and Lemoyne Institute during the summers.
Ida’s career as a writer was sparked by an incident that occurred in 1884, while riding a train back to her job in Woodstock. Wells was asked by the conductor to move from her seat in the ladies’ car into the smoking car.
“I refused,” she later wrote, describing how the conductor tried to drag her out of the seat: “the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggage man and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”
When Wells got back to Memphis, she brought suit against the Railroad Company. The court ruled in her favor and awarded her $500 in damages. The judge presiding over the trial stated the railroad company violated the separate but equal laws by forcing Wells to ride in a smoking car that was separate but not first class, for which she had paid.
Even though the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision three years later, this was the first case of its kind in the South, and generated tremendous public interest.
Thrilled with her victory and eager to share her story, Wells wrote an article for The Living Way, a Black Memphis newspaper, using the pen name “Iola.”
Her prolific writing soon earned her the position of editor for three Memphis newspapers, The Living Way, The Evening Star and Free Speech, becoming part owner of the latter.
“All of this, although gratifying surprised me very much for I had no training except what the work on The Evening Star had given me, and no literary gifts and graces. But I had observed and thought much about conditions as I had seen them in the country schools and churches. I had an instinctive feeling that the people who had little or no school training should have something coming into their homes weekly, which dealt with their problems in a simple, helpful way. So in weekly letters to The Living Way, I wrote in a plain, common sense way on the things which concerned our people. Knowing that their education was limited, I never used a word of two syllables where one would serve the purpose. I signed these articles “Iola.”
On exposing the inferior facilities of Black schools around Memphis, Wells was fired from her teaching job, but was then free to devote full time to the fight for justice and equality. She quickly became a famous writer whose articles appeared in journals and newspapers throughout the nation.
One reporter noted: “Miss Ida B. Wells, Iola, has been called the Princess of the Press, and she has well earned the title. No writer, the male fraternity not excepted, has been more extensively quoted.”
In her autobiography, she wrote:
“While I was thus carrying on the work of my newspaper, happy in the thought that our influence was helpful and that I was doing the work I loved and had proved that I could make a living out of it, there came the lynching in Memphis which changed the whole course of my life. I was on one of my trips away from home busily engaged in Natchez when word came of the lynching of three men in Memphis.”
It was during a cold night in March 1892. Wells’ close friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart, owners of
People’s Grocery Co., had angered white men who considered them “uppity” and sought to eliminate the competition they posed by an armed attack on their grocery store.
But the brothers fought back, shooting one of the attackers. Shortly thereafter, all three were arrested. A mob of cursing, shouting white men broke into the jail at Memphis, dragged them away from town and brutally murdered them.
Wells responded to this atrocious act of violence by writing an editorial in the Free Speech: She noted the lynching was really “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down.’
“The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. 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.”
Memphis Blacks took Wells’ advice, and in two month’s time, six thousand black people left Memphis, many relocating to the Oklahoma Territory. Those who remained organized boycotts of white owned businesses in response to the lynchings.
The very night her article appeared, a mob invaded Wells’ offices and destroyed the printing equipment and all the newspapers they could find. Her very life in danger, Wells moved to Chicago where she continued her blistering attacks on racist criminality and Southern injustice.
After the demise of The Free Speech, a Black newspaper called The New York Age began printing her articles, and Wells launched a lecturing tour throughout the northeast to further spread her message on the horrors of lynching.
Later on in 1892, Wells spoke at a conference of black women’s clubs, where she was given $500 to investigate lynching and publish her findings.
“I then began an investigation of every lynching I read about. By 1893, over a thousand Black men, women and children had been hanged, shot and burned to death by white mobs in America.”
During the late 1800’s, violence against blacks increased at alarming rates and mob rule was becoming the norm. The KuKluxKlan established a “reign of terror,” murdering and lynching innocent blacks, while most southern whites looked the other way.
Ida B. Wells traveled across the country interviewing eyewitnesses and visiting the scenes of lynchings. Of the 728 murders she investigated, Wells found that only a third involved Blacks actually accused of crimes. Not only men, but women and children were victims of mob violence.
Many blacks were hung, shot and burned to death for trivial things such as not paying a debt, disrespecting whites, testifying in court, stealing hogs, and public drunkenness. At least one third of the charges against black men were for the rape of white women. The racist violence against Black men was thus “justified” as protecting “white womanhood.”
Wells wrote that in many of these so-called “rape” cases there was evidence of a consensual relationship between black men and white women, evoking outrage among whites. Her findings were published in a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.
Repeating an assertion she frequently made during her anti-lynching crusade, Wells said that she had but one life to give, and if she must die by violence, she would take some of her persecutors with her. She kept a pistol available in the house and dared anyone to cross her threshold to harm her or any member of her family.
While remaining diligent in her anti-lynching crusade, Wells spearheaded the development of numerous African women’s organizations in Chicago and Boston. She became a tireless worker for women’s right to vote, befriending both Susan B. Anthony and Jane Adams, and becoming a familiar face at suffrage meetings.
She became the first female representative to a press convention. And in 1889, at a Washington, D.C. convention, Wells was elected secretary to the National Press Association where she met for the first time, the great Frederick Douglass.
Later on, Wells collaborated with Douglass and others, including her future husband, in writing a pamphlet titled “Reasons Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Colombian Exposition” in response to the exclusion of Blacks in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It documented the progress of blacks since their arrival in America, and was distributed to over 20,000 people.
Wells also became an activist in the struggle to block the establishment of segregated schools, and established the first kindergarten in a Black neighborhood.
In 1893, Wells embarked on a lecture tour of England, Scotland, and Wales, inspiring international organizations to apply pressure on America to end segregation and lynching.
Two years later, she published a report titled “A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged causes of Lynching in the United States,” which argued that the impetus behind lynching was economic.
That same year, 1895, at the age of 33, Wells married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a Chicago lawyer, activist and editor. Barnett was the owner and founder of The Conservator, the first black newspaper in Chicago. Together, they had two sons and two daughters. Although the renowned journalist then took time out to focus on her family, she remained politically active.
In 1906, she joined with W.E.B. DuBois and others to further the Niagara Movement.
She helped found the National Association of Colored Women and the NAACP. In 1910 she formed the Negro Fellowship League, which she housed in a three-story building on Chicago’s south side. It served as a fellowship home for new settlers from the south and provided space for religious services, an employment office, and a homeless shelter for men.
In1913, Wells established the first Black women’s suffrage club. That same year she marched in a suffrage parade in Washington DC and met with President William McKinley about a lynching in South Carolina.
In 1916, She became involved with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. And in the years following World War I, she covered various race riots in Arkansas, East St. Louis and Chicago, publishing her reports in pamphlets and newspapers nationwide.
In 1928, Wells began her autobiography, stating that “the history of this entire period which reflected glory on the race should be known. Yet most of it is buried in oblivion… and so, because our youth are entitled to the facts of race history which only the participants can give, I am thus led to set forth the facts.”
By 1930, her impatience with politicians and her growing concern for Chicago’s Black ghetto led Wells to run for the Illinois State Senate, which she lost to the incumbent.
Wells continued her community organizing till the end of her life, determined to change the conditions of poverty and hopelessness on Chicago’s South Side.
On March 25, 1931, at the age of 69, Ida B. Wells-Barnett joined the ancestors, leaving an incredible legacy of courage, sacrifice, dedication and activism. Given the harsh, dangerous conditions of the post Civil-War context in which she struggled, her accomplishments were truly amazing. She was surely one of the 20th century’s most remarkable women.
In 1941, a Chicago housing development was named in her honor, and in 1990 the U.S. Postal Service issued an Ida B. Wells-Barnett postage stamp. Her autobiography, “Crusade for Justice,” edited by A. Duster, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1970.
Long live the spirit of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.