28 Days Of Black History Day #17 Ida Bell Wells-Barnett
The rise of Realism “a Passion for Justice”
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931) was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist and, with her husband, newspaper owner Ferdinand L. Barnett, an early leader in the civil rights movement. She documented lynching in the United States, showing how it was often a way to control or punish blacks who competed with whites. She was active in women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement, establishing several notable women’s organizations. Wells was a skilled and persuasive rhetorician, and traveled internationally on lecture tours.
Ida Bell Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, just before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father was James Wells and her mother was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Warrenton Wells. Both parents were enslaved until freed under the Proclamation.
Ida’s father James was a master at carpentry and a “race man” who worked for the advancement of blacks. He was very interested in politics and was a member of the Loyal League. He attended Shaw University in Holly Springs (now Rust College) but dropped out to help his family. He also attended public speeches and campaigned for local black candidates, but he never ran for office.
Ida attended Shaw as well but was expelled for her rebellious behavior and temper after confronting the college president. While visiting her grandmother in the Mississippi Valley in 1878, when she was 16 years old, Ida received word that Holly Springs had suffered a yellow fever epidemic. Her parents and her 10-month-old brother, Stanley died.
Following the funerals, friends and relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children should be sent to various foster homes. Ida resisted this solution. To keep her younger siblings together as a family, she dropped out of Shaw and found work as a teacher in a black elementary school. (The schools were racially segregated.) Her grandmother Peggy Wells, along with other friends and relatives, stayed with the children during the week while she was away teaching. Without this help, she would have not been able to keep her siblings together. She resented that white teachers were paid $80 a month when she was paid only $30 a month. This discrimination made her more interested in the politics of race and improving the education of blacks.
In 1883, Ida B. Wells took three of her younger siblings to Memphis, Tenn., to live with her aunt and to be closer to other family members. She found she could earn higher wages there as a teacher. Soon after moving, she was hired in Woodstock for the Shelby County school system. During her summer vacations, she attended summer sessions at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville; its graduates were well respected in the black community. She also attended LeMoyne. She held strong political opinions and provoked many people with her views on women’s rights. At 24, she wrote, “I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge.”
On May 4, 1884, a train conductor with the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad ordered Wells to give up her seat and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. The year before, the Supreme Court had invalidated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. This verdict allowed railroad companies to continue racial segregation of their passengers.
Wells refused to give up her seat, 71 years before the activist Rosa Parks showed similar resistance on a bus. The conductor and two men dragged Wells out of the car. When she returned to Memphis, she hired an African-American attorney to sue the railroad. She also became a public figure in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train. When her lawyer was paid off by the railroad, she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884, when the local circuit court granted her a $500 settlement. The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling in 1887. It concluded, “We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride.” Wells was ordered to pay court costs.
While teaching elementary school, Wells was offered an editorial position for the Evening Star. She also wrote weekly articles for The Living Way weekly newspaper under the pen name “Iola” and gained a reputation for writing about the race issue. In 1889, she became co-owner and editor of Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregationist newspaper that was started by the Reverend Taylor Nightingale and was based at the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis. It published articles about racial injustice.
In March 1892, racial tensions were rising in Memphis. Violence was becoming the norm. Her three friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, owned the People’s Grocery Company. It was doing well and was seen as competitive with a white-owned grocery store across the street. While Wells was out of town in Natchez, Mississippi, a white mob invaded her friends’ store. During the altercation, three white men were shot and injured. Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were arrested and jailed. A large lynch mob stormed the jail and killed the three men.
After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote in Free Speech and Headlight, urging blacks to leave Memphis:
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.
Wells emphasized the public spectacle of the lynching. Over 6,000 blacks did leave; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. After being threatened with violence, she bought a pistol. She later wrote, “They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth.”
Wells received much support from other social activists and her fellow clubwomen. In his response to her article in the Free Speech, Frederick Douglass expressed approval of her work: “You have done your people and mine a service…What a revelation of existing conditions your writing has been for me.” (Freedman, 1994). Wells took her anti-lynching campaign to Europe with the help of many supporters. In 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women, and also founded the National Afro-American Council. Wells formed the Women’s Era Club, the first civic organization for African-American women. This later was named the Ida B. Wells Club, in honor of its founder.
In 1899, Wells was struggling to manage a home life and a career life, but she was still a fierce campaigner in the anti-lynching circle. This was illustrated when the National Association of Colored Women’s club met that year in Chicago. To Wells’ surprise, she was not invited to take part in the convention. When she confronted the president of the club, Mrs. Terrell told her that the women of Chicago wrote to say that if Wells were to take part in the club, they would no longer aid the association. Wells later learned that Terrell’s own competitiveness played a part.
After traveling through the British Isles and the United States teaching and lecturing about the problem of lynchings in the United States, Wells settled in Chicago and worked to improve conditions for its rapidly growing African-American population. People were starting to move out of the South to northern industrial cities in the Great Migration. Competition for jobs and housing caused a rise in social tensions because of the rapid changes. African-American migrants also competed with an expanding wave of rural immigrants from Europe, who were now in competition for jobs. Wells spent the latter thirty years of her life in Chicago working on urban reform. She also raised her family and worked on her autobiography. After her retirement, Wells wrote her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928).
She never finished it; the book ends in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a word. Wells died of uremia (kidney failure) in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of sixty-eight.
It was in England that Wells and Frances Willard first clashed. Willard was the secretary of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the most formidable women’s organizations in the country, with branches in every state and a membership of over 200,000. Willard had used the issue of temperance to politicize women who saw organizing for suffrage as too radical.
Wells’ anti-lynching campaign brought the two to England concurrently. As Wells described the horrors of American lynchings, British liberals were incredulous that white women such as Willard, who had been heralded in the English press as the “Uncrowned Queen of American Democracy,” would turn a blind eye to such violence. Wells correctly accused Willard of being silent on the issue of lynchings, and of making racial comments which would add fuel to the fire of mob violence. To support her assertion, Wells referred to an interview Willard had conducted during a tour of the South in which Willard had cast aspersions on the race, blaming blacks for the defeat of temperance legislation. “The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt,” she had said, and “the grog shop is its center of power… The safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities.”
In response, Willard and her powerful hostess and counterpart, Lady Somerset, attempted to use their influence to keep Wells’ comments out of the press. Wells responded by revealing that despite Willard’s abolitionist forbears and black friends, no black women were admitted to the WCTU’s southern branches.
The dispute between Wells and Willard in England intensified the vicious campaign against Wells in the American Press. The New York Times ran an article insisting that black men were prone to rape, and that Wells was a “slanderous and nasty minded mulatress” who was looking for more “income” than “outcome.” These vitriolic attacks in the American press swayed many Britons to Wells’ cause. “It is idle for men to say that the conditions which Miss Wells describes do not exist,” a British editor wrote. “Whites of America may not think so; British Christianity does and all the scurrility of the American press won’t alter the facts.”
Wells’ British tour was ultimately a personal success and led to the formation of the British Anti-Lynching Committee, which included such notables and the Duke of Argyll, the Archbishop of Canterbury, members of Parliament, and the editors of The Manchester Guardian.
Throughout her life, Wells was militant in her demands for equality and justice for African-Americans and insisted for the African-American community to win justice through its own efforts. Since her death, interest in her life and legacy has only grown. Her life is the subject of a widely performed musical drama, which debuted in 2006, by Tazewell Thompson, Constant Star. The play sums her up:
…A woman born in slavery, she would grow to become one of the great pioneer activists of the Civil Rights movement. A precursor of Rosa Parks, she was a suffragist, newspaper editor and publisher, investigative journalist, co-founder of the NAACP, political candidate, mother, wife, and the single most powerful leader in the anti-lynching campaign in America. A dynamic, controversial, temperamental, uncompromising race woman, she broke bread and crossed swords with some of the movers and shakers of her time: Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frances Willard, and President McKinley. By any fair assessment, she was a seminal figure in Post-Reconstruction America.
On February 1, 1990, the United States Postal Service issued a 25 cent postage stamp in her honor. In 2002, Molefi Kete Asante listed Wells on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. In 1941, the Public Works Administration (PWA) built the Ida B. Wells Homes, a Chicago Housing Authority public housing project in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the south side in Chicago, Illinois. The buildings were demolished in August 2011