Recognizing Ida B. Wells – Black History Month


What do you know about Ida B. Wells?

She was an African American journalist and activist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s.

Her life was one challenge/threat after another, but in her biography, you see her stare each one down. Instead of buckling under an unjust and cruel system, she fought back to establish opportunities for women and for African Americans.

She was born into slavery during the Civil War, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and grew up during the Reconstruction.

When her folks and baby brother died during the Yellow Fever outbreak, the plan was for her siblings to be taken into separate families. Her mother was separated from family in Virginia when she was sold to a slaveholder from Mississippi. Determined to keep her siblings together, she took a test, received a Teaching Certificate, exaggerated her age, and got a job at a rural school.

She moved with her sisters to Memphis and lived with an aunt. Traveling to her teaching job, she boarded the ladies car on the train – not an act of protest, but as a way to get to work. When the conductor told her to get off the car one day, she refused. He successfully pulled her off, even after she bit his hand. He may have won that battle, but for Ida B Wells, the war was on. She arrived home by wagon and sued the railway; the lower courts awarded her damages, but her case made it to the State Supreme Court and the decision was reversed.

While Wells taught at a segregated public school, she worked as a journalist and publisher. She publicly criticized Memphis for the condition of black only schools and was fired from teaching for these remarks in 1891.

Ever the activist, Wells had awakened to her calling – not to resist the evil her race suffered from the white establishment, but to fight it by “shining the light of truth” with her writings and words.

One night, one of her friends was pulled out of jail and lynched with two other black men after they tried warding off attackers threatening to ruin their grocery store. Wells set out on a two-month journey to interview eyewitnesses of other southern lynchings to shine light on this barbaric practice. She published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases, to show how whites threatened by economic and political competition used their power to terrorize and murder.

Writing got Wells into great trouble; as co-owner of a Memphis newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, she wrote about segregation and racial inequality. She published a scathing editorial about trumped up charges of rape against black men. In turn, an angry mob broke into the newspaper HQ and destroyed the presses. Fortunately, Ida was in New York at the time. She was warned not to return.

Shaking the dust from her feet, she moved to Chicago where she met and married an accomplished lawyer, Ferdinand Barnett. While raising a family together, they continued their activism.

Ida’s colorful life included several firsts:

  • Led the first antilynching campaign
  • Formed the National Association of Colored Women.
  • Was considered a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
  • Was a leader in the women’s Suffrage Movement
  • Established Chicago’s first kindergarten prioritizing black children
  • Ran for political office in Illinois
  • Was a founding member of the Negro Fellowship League (NFL) in 1908, after the design of the YMCA that did not allow black men to become members

In 2020, Wells was posthumously honored with a Pulitzer Prize special citation “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.

Still curious? Check out her great-granddaughter’s recent biography: Ida B. the Queen by Michelle Duster.