Who Was Ida B. Wells? | History Hit

Who Was Ida B. Wells?

Shannon Callahan

12 Apr 2022
Ida B. Wells circa 1895 by Cihak and Zima
Image Credit: Cihak and Zima via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Ida B. Wells, or Wells-Barnett, was a teacher, journalist, civil rights pioneer and suffragist most remembered for her anti-lynching efforts in the 1890s. Born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862, her activist spirit was inspired in her by her parents who were politically active during the Reconstruction era.

Throughout her life, she worked tirelessly in the United States and abroad to expose the realities of lynching events in the US. Historically, her work was overlooked, with her name only recently becoming more celebrated. Wells also created and led many organisations fighting for racial and gender equality.

Ida B. Wells became a caretaker for her siblings after her parents died

When Wells was 16, her parents and youngest sibling died during a yellow fever epidemic in her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Wells had been studying at Shaw University – now Rust College – at the time but returned home to take care of her remaining siblings. Though she was only 16, she convinced a school administrator she was 18 and was able to find work as a teacher. She later moved her family to Memphis, Tennessee and continued working as a teacher.

In 1884, Wells won a lawsuit against a train car company for forcibly removing her

Wells sued a train car company in 1884 for throwing her off a first-class train despite having a ticket. She had travelled this way previously, and it was a violation of her rights to be asked to move. As she was forcibly removed from the train car, she bit a crew member. Wells won her case on a local level and was awarded $500 as a result. However, the case was later overturned in federal court.

Ida B. Wells c. 1893 by Mary Garrity.

Wells lost a friend to lynching in 1892

By 25, Wells co-owned and edited the Free Speech and Headlight newspaper in Memphis, writing under the name Iola. She began writing about racial inequality after one of her friends and his two business associates – Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart – were lynched on 9 March 1892 after being attacked by their white competitors one night.

The black men fought back to protect their shop, firing at and injuring several white men in the process. They were arrested for their actions, but before they could stand trial, a white mob broke into the jail, dragged them out and lynched them.

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Wells subsequently investigated lynching events across the south

In the aftermath, Wells realised the stories printed in newspapers did not often depict the realities of what had occurred. She bought a pistol and set off across the south to sites where lynching events had occurred.

In her travels, she researched 700 lynching events from the past decade, visiting the places where the lynching happened, examining photos and newspaper accounts, and interviewing witnesses. Her investigations disputed the narratives that lynching victims were ruthless criminals who deserved their punishment.

She uncovered that, though rape was a commonly reported excuse for lynching, it was only alleged in a third of the events, usually after a consensual, interracial relationship had been revealed. She exposed the events for what they truly were: targeted, racist retaliations to instill fear in the black community.

She was forced to flee the south for her reporting

Wells’ articles enraged white locals in Memphis, especially after she suggested that white women could be romantically interested in black men. As she published her writing in her own newspaper, an angry mob destroyed her shop and threatened to kill her if she returned to Memphis. She was not in town when her press shop was destroyed, likely saving her life. She remained in the north, working on an in-depth report on lynching for The New York Age and settling permanently in Chicago, Illinois.

She continued her investigative and activist work in Chicago

Wells continued her work in earnest in Chicago, publishing A Red Record in 1895, which detailed her investigations into lynching in America. This was the first statistical record of lynching events, showcasing how widespread the problem was across the United States. Additionally, in 1895 she married lawyer Ferdinand Barnett, hyphenating her name with his, rather than taking his name as was custom at the time.

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She fought for racial equality and women’s suffrage

Her activist work did not end with anti-lynching campaigns. She called for a boycott of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition for locking out African Americans. She criticized white women’s suffrage efforts for ignoring lynching and racial inequality, establishing her own suffrage groups, the National Association of Colored Women’s Club and Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club.

As president of the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, she was invited to join the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, DC. Having been asked to march at the back of the parade with other black suffragists, she was dissatisfied with and ignored the request, standing at the edge of the parade, waiting for the Chicago section of white protestors to pass, where she promptly joined them. On 25 June 1913, the passage of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Act came in large part due to the efforts of the women’s suffrage club.

Ida B. Wells in c. 1922.

Image Credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Wells established many activist organisations

In addition to her women’s suffrage organisations, Wells was a tireless advocate for anti-lynching legislation and racial equality. She was at the meeting in Niagara Falls when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established, but her name is left off the founder’s list.

However, she was not impressed by the elitism of the group’s leadership and was disappointed by the lack of action-based initiatives. She was seen as too radical, so she distanced herself from the organisation. In 1910, she founded the Negro Fellowship League to assist migrants arriving from the south to Chicago, and she was secretary for the National Afro-American Council from 1898-1902. Wells led an anti-lynching protest in DC in 1898, calling on President McKinley to pass anti-lynching legislation. Her activism and her exposés on lynching in America cement her role in history as a tireless champion of racial equality in the Jim Crow era.

Shannon Callahan