Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an African-American journalist and activist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s.
Born a slave in 1862, Ida Bell Wells was the oldest daughter of James and Lizzie Wells. The Wells family, as well as the rest of the nation's slaves, were freed about six months after Ida's birth, thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation. However, living in Mississippi as African Americans, they faced racial prejudices and were restricted by discriminatory rules and practices.
Ida B. Wells's father served on the first board of trustees for Rust College and made education a priority for his seven children. It was there that Wells received her early schooling, but she had to drop out at the age of 16, when tragedy struck her family. Both of her parents and one of her siblings died in a yellow fever outbreak, leaving Wells to care for her other siblings. Ever resourceful, she convinced a nearby country school administrator that she was 18, and landed a job as a teacher.
In 1882, Wells moved with her sisters to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with an aunt. Her brothers found work as carpenter apprentices. For a time, Wells continued her education at Fisk University in Nashville.
Journalist and Activist
On one fateful train ride from Memphis to Nashville, in May 1884, Wells reached a personal turning point. Having bought a first-class train ticket to Nashville, she was outraged when the train crew ordered her to move to the car for African Americans, and refused on principle. She was then forcibly removed from the train. Wells sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement in a circuit court case. However, the decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
This injustice led Ida B. Wells to pick up a pen to write about issues of race and politics in the South. Using the moniker “Iola,” a number of her articles were published in black newspapers and periodicals. Wells eventually became an owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, and, later, of the Free Speech.
While working as a journalist and publisher, Wells also held a position as a teacher in a segregated public school in Memphis. She became a vocal critic of the condition of blacks only schools in the city. In 1891, she was fired from her job for these attacks. She championed another cause after the murder of a friend and his two business associates.
In 1892, three African-American men–Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart—set up a grocery store in Memphis. Their new business drew customers away from a white-owned store in the neighborhood, and the white store owner and his supporters clashed with the three men on a few occasions. One night, Moss and the others guarded their store against attack and ended up shooting several of the white vandals. They were arrested and brought to jail, but they didn't have a chance to defend themselves against the charges—a lynch mob took them from their cells and murdered them.
These brutal killings incensed Wells, leading to her write articles decrying the lynching of her friend and the wrongful deaths of other African Americans. Putting her own life at risk, she spent two months traveling in the South, gathering information on other lynching incidents. One editorial seemed to push some of the city's whites over the edge. A mob stormed the office of her newspaper, destroying all of her equipment. Fortunately, Wells had been traveling to New York City at the time. She was warned that she would be killed if she ever returned to Memphis.
Staying in the North, Wells wrote an in-depth report on lynching in America for the New York Age, an African-American newspaper run by former slave T. Thomas Fortune. She lectured abroad in 1893, looking to drum up support for her cause among reform-minded whites. Upset by the ban on African-American exhibitors at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Wells penned and circulated a pamphlet entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Represented in the World's Columbian Exposition.” This effort was funded and supported by famed abolitionist and freed slave Frederick Douglass, and lawyer and editor Ferdinand Barnett. Also in 1893, Wells published A Red Record, a personal examination of lynchings in America.
In 1898, Wells brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House, leading a protest in Washington, D.C., and calling for President William McKinley to make reforms. She married Ferdinand Barnett that same year, and was thereafter known as Ida B. Wells-Barnett. While the couple eventually had four children together, Wells remained committed to her social and political activism.
Ida B. Wells established several civil rights organizations. In 1896, she formed the National Association of Colored Women. After brutal assaults on the African-American community in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, Wells sought to take action: The following year, she attended a special conference for the organization that would later become known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Though she is considered a founding member of the NAACP, Wells later cut ties with the organization; she explained her decision thereafter, stating that she felt the organization—in its infacy at the time she left—had lacked action-based initiatives.
Working on behalf of all women, Wells, as part of her work with the National Equal Rights League, called for President Woodrow Wilson to put an end to discriminatory hiring practices for government jobs. She created the first African-American kindergarten in her community and fought for women's suffrage. In 1930, Wellst made an unsuccessful bid for the state senate. Health problems plagued her the following year.
Ida B. Wells died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931, at the age of 69, in Chicago, Illinois. She left behind an impressive legacy of social and political heroism. With her writings, speeches and protests, Wells fought against prejudice, no matter what potential dangers she faced. She once said, “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
July 16, 1862
March 25, 1931
- Ida Wells lost her parents to a yellow fever epidemic when she was 16. She took a job as a teacher in a school about 5 miles away from her home, stating that she was 18. She managed to look after her younger siblings with her salary. She later attended Rust College, and became a qualified teacher in Memphis.
- One day, in Memphis, she bought a first class railroad ticket, and when she was seated, the conductor told her to sit in the ‘Jim Crow’ section, reserved for blacks. She refused, and when the conductor tried to force her, she bit his hand. She was finally removed with help from the guard. She sued the railroad company, and won, but finally lost when the case went to the Appeals Court.
- Things finally came to a head when she wrote an article implying that in the many incidents of so-called rape, white women had had consensual sexual relations with black men. This so enraged the white citizens that they destroyed the printing press of Free Speech and burnt the building in which it was housed. Fortunately, Wells was away at the time. Her friends warned her that her life was in danger, so she stayed in New York, and got a job there.
- Though she continued to write about lynchings, she was not satisfied with the response from the public. She then took a trip to Britain and other countries in Europe, where she addressed various gatherings. She was well-received, and her views were widely publicised by editors and organisations like the Society of Brotherhood of Man and the Anti-Lynching Committee.
- When she returned to USA in 1893, she settled in Chicago. She worked for a black newspaper, Conservator, run by Ferdinand Barnett. In 1895, she married Barnett, and they had four children. Even after marriage and motherhood, Ida Wells-Barnett continued her crusades.
- She was instrumental in the foundation of the National Association of Coloured Women (1896), and the National Association for Advancement of Coloured People (1909). She also helped to establish the first kindergarten in a black district in Chicago. She joined issue with Jane Addams to oppose segregation in city schools, and worked to gain voting rights for women.