Ida B. Wells, undaunted.
The word to describe Ida B. Wells was fierce. The word more commonly used, formidable, is entirely inadequate for a life of defiance and struggle that began in slavery during the Civil War and ended just before the New Deal. Along the way she was the associate or opponent—sometimes both the with the same person—of Fredrick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Francis Willard, Jane Adams, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B Dubois, Alice Paul, and Marcus Garvey. She exposed the lynch mobs running rampant in the Jim Crow South, helped found the NAACP and half a dozen other important organizations, pioneered the Great Migration from the rural South to Chicago and other Northern industrial cities and demanded equal voting rights for women and African-Americans. When she died it was as if a visceral force of nature had suddenly vanished.
Wells was born in slavery as the Civil War was rapidly marching toward the end of servitude on July 16, 1862 on a plantation in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her parents were among a sort of slave elite, spared the drudgery of the fields and by in large the lash. Her father, James Wells, was a master carpenter and her mother, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Warrenton Wells, was a prized cook. Both were literate and began to teach their daughter as soon as she was big enough to hold a book.
After emancipation, James Wells became a known Race Man, a vocal leader among his people and ambitious for himself, his family, and his race. He managed to attend Shaw University, now Rust College, in Holly Springs for a while. He was a leading member of the local chapter of the Loyalty League, a kind of Republican Party auxiliary in support of Reconstruction and opposed to the Ku Klux Klan. He spoke for Republican candidates and his home was a center for political action, but he never himself ran for office.
If the family’s politics were firmly Republican, mother Lizzie made sure that young Ida was brought up in the firm Christian principles of the Baptist faith.
From the beginning she showed a fierce independence and a quick temper at perceived injustices. Her parents enrolled her at Shaw, but after a few months was expelled for a sharp exchange with the college president. She was sent to visit her grandmother to cool down while her father tried to mend fences.
Ida’s nurturing and stimulating home was shattered in 1878 while on that visit. She got word that her parents and an infant brother were all struck down in a devastating yellow fever epidemic that swept the South.
Orphaned at 16, she resisted efforts to parcel out five other younger siblings to relatives. She determined to keep the family together. Ida took a job teaching in segregated schools, working at a distance from home and coming back on weekends and holidays while her paternal grandmother cared for the children. From the beginning she was outraged that as a Black teacher, her salary was $30 a month, less than half the pay whites.
After a few years to improve her lot, she moved with most of her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, the bustling economic capitol of the Mississippi Delta, and the home to a large and sophisticated Black community. By 1883 she was employed by the Shelby County School District in nearby Woodstock. During the summers she studied at Fisk University across the state in Nashville and she also frequent visited family in Mississippi.
So Ida was a veteran train rider. She knew well the conditions of segregation in the cars that had taken quick root after the Supreme Court had struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 the previous year. That act had banned discrimination on public accommodations in interstate commerce—railroads.
On May 4, 1884 Wells was ordered out of her seat by a conductor to make room for a white passenger. She refused to be relocated to the smoking parlor and had to be dragged from the train by two or three men. Almost 50 years before Rosa Parks, Ida would not submit so passively to arrest.
Cartoonist Kate Beaton depicted Ida B. Wells's defining moment on a train in her Hark! A Vagrant.
Back in Memphis she hired a prominent Black attorney to sue the railroad and wrote about her experience and cause in the Black church newspaper The Living Way. Despite her attorney being bribed by the railroad to sabotage her case, Wells won a $500 judgment. The state Supreme Court later overturned the verdict and ordered her to pay steep court costs.
But the event made her a hero in the Black community and launched her on a secondary career as a journalist and crusader. In addition to The Living Way, she was hired to contribute articles to the Evening Star. She was an outspoken commentator on race issues while continuing to teach.
In 1889 Rev. R. Nightingale of the Beale Street Baptist Church invited Wells to become co-owner and editor of his anti-segregationist newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight. With the end of Reconstruction and the dawning of the Jim Crow era violence against Blacks to “put them back in their place” was escalating. Wells made a specialty of documenting outrages.
In March of 1892 the three proprietors of the thriving People’s Grocery Store in Memphis, which was seen as competition and an affront to white businesses, were attacked by a mob and dragged from their store. A crowd from the community gathered to defend the men and three of the white attackers were shot. Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, all personal friends of Wells, were arrested and jailed. A mob broke into the jail and murdered the men.
Wells had been out of town at the time of the attack. But she rushed home and began writing furiously. Finally, she concluded that if the leading business people in the Black community were not safe from lynching nobody was. Sadly and reluctantly she advised her readers:
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.
Receiving daily death threats Wells armed herself with a pistol.
Three months after her friends were lynched a mob attacked and burned the offices of Free Speech and Headlight.
Well's classic lynching expose made her famous.
She took up the cause of exposing and fighting lynch law with a vengeance and unmatched passion. Speaking to women’s clubs around the country about her documented research on how widespread it had become, Wells raised enough money to publish a pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases. Later she documented the atrocities in detail in an even more shocking book, The Red Record, which made her a celebrity. \
Ida also breached the taboo topic of sex, repudiating the popular myth that many lynching were to protect pure white womanhood from predatory Black males. She document that most interracial sexual liaisons were not only voluntary, but were initiated by whites, women as well as men.
Sooner rather than later she had to take her own advice. In 1893 she relocated to Chicago, the tip of the spear of the Great Migration which would fill northern cities with southern Blacks. She continued to speak out on lynching and contributed to black newspapers.
But she did not confine herself to the issue of lynching. She had been drawn to the city by the World Columbian Exposition. She was soon collaborating with Fredrick Douglass in urging a black boycott of the Fair in protest to discrimination in hiring construction workers and more skilled workers—Blacks were only hired for the most menial tasks and as waiters and porters. She contributed to the pamphlet, Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition. More than 20,000 copies were circulated to fair visitors.
Wells launched an extensive speaking tour which took her to many northern cities and to visits to England to promote her anti-lynching campaign. She was greeted as a hero in London. She also met and was impressed by the leading English Suffragettes. While in town she became embroiled in a bitter public newspaper exchange with another visiting American reformer, Francis Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who asserted that Blacks were not ready for or deserving of equality until they gave up drinking, which she said was epidemic. Wells, herself a teetotaler, refuted the charges in none too temperate language.
In 1895 Wells married the editor of Chicago’s first major Black newspaper, Chicago Conservator, Ferdinand L. Barnett. Barnett was also a lawyer and former Assistant States Attorney. They had met shortly before her departure from Memphis when Barnett served as her pro bono attorney in a libel case. She became step mother to his two children and the devoted couple had four more. She continued her public career but frankly sometimes had difficulty balancing home and other commitments.
Mrs. Ida B. Wells-Barnett with her children in 1909.
Well’s interest in women’s issues was almost as strong as her devotion to her race. She felt the two causes were not only complimentary, but inseparable. In 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women, and also founded the National Afro-American Council. She also formed the Women’s Era Club, the first civic organization for Black women which was later renamed for its founder.
The latter organization brought her into close collaboration with Jane Adams and they jointly campaigned against the segregation of Chicago Public Schools and on other reforms.
Her frequent lectures on behalf of universal suffrage attracted the attention and admiration of the aging founder of the movement, Susan B. Anthony. When Wells had to dial back some of her commitments for a while after the birth of her second child, Anthony publicly lamented the loss.
In 1909 she was one of the prominent leaders to join with W.E.B Dubois, Mary White Ovington and others to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). However her name was left out of publicity about the founding and she was one of the few principle founders not to get a prominent office in the new organization. Dubois claimed that Wells asked not to be listed, and later corrected the founding story. Few people, least of all Wells herself who was not one to hide her light under a bushel, believed the story. There was frankly a kind of rivalry between two of the best known and most militant black leaders both of whom had risen to prominence as journalists and muckrakers. Despite the snub, Wells remained active in the organization and for his part Dubois published her articles in The Crisis.
The always outspoken Wells was not afraid of controversy within the Black community and movement. She was an early and outspoken critic of Booker T. Washington, the figure often held up by the white establishment as the modest model of Black leadership for demanding few concessions from whites and advocating self-improvement through education.
She also drew the wrath of many black leaders by praising Marcus Garvey for his message of economic self-sufficiency for Blacks and was one of the few to publicly defend him when he was accused of mail fraud in a Federal indictment in 1919. Despite the criticisms, her embrace of Pan-Africanism and particularly the Back to Africa aspects of Garvey’s movement was limited. She preferred to live and fight in the United States. And after Garvey flirted with an alliance with the Ku Klux Klan in the early ‘20s so that “each race could flourish,” she could not stomach further association with anyone who could ally with lynchers.
But positions like these limited her influence among Black leaders who hoped to mollify white suspicions. It could crop up even in organizations that she founded. She was once denied a speaking role at a convention of the National Association of Colored Women because delegates feared her radicalism would result in bad press.
Wells threw her support to Alice Paul’s militant faction of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and with her friend Jane Adams interceded with the conservative national leadership of the organization to approve the giant Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington , D.C. on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural in 1913. She marched with a contingent of Black women.
By the 1920s Wells was semi-retired from public life, having given up public lectures and most organizational duties. She could still be counted on to fire off a fiery article or editorial when an issue moved her. She mostly dedicated herself to her husband and family and to meticulous research for an autobiography she was writing.
Once in a while she responded like an old fire horse to an alarm. In 1930, disgusted that neither major party had any program to relieve the great distress in the Black community caused by the Great Depression, she ran as an independent for a seat in the Illinois General Assembly. She was one of the first Black women in the country to run for election at that level. Of course she lost.
When she died she was still working on her autobiography, Crusade for Justice. A first edition had been published in 1928, but she was working on a greatly revised and expanded version, backed by meticulous research when she died. As one writer put it “the book ends in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a word.”
Wells was widely mourned, especially in Chicago.
She was memorialized most obviously in the massive Ida B. Wells Homes, high rises, mid-rises and row houses built by the WPA in 1939-41 for the Chicago Housing Authority in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Always intended for Blacks from the slums of the South Side, the Homes deteriorated into a gang violence ridden symbol of urban failure and most buildings were razed in stages between 2002 and 2011. Most of the residents never knew a thing about the woman the buildings were named for.
Wells’s fame has been surprisingly limited for one so deeply involved in so many social issues over such a long and critical time. She mostly gets a footnote mention in histories for her anti-lynching crusades. The academic guardians of American history, at least as it is presented to impressionable high school and college students, favor far more moderate voices than that of Ida B. Wells.
Perhaps they are still a little afraid of her after all this time. Certainly not surprising in a country where a third of the voting age population regards Michelle Obama as a raging radical and America hater.