In the march toward equality, before there can be any action, there must first be someone bold enough to point out and demand that action needs to be taken in the first place. That person , without a doubt, was Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). A journalist, civil rights activist, women’s suffrage advocate and anti-lynching crusader, Ida B. Wells was so unabashedly outspoken and action-oriented that she parted ways with the NAACP (an organization she helped to found) because she felt they weren’t doing enough.
Ms. Wells was actually born a slave in 1862 and didn’t receive her freedom until a few years later when the 13th amendment was officially ratified. The eldest of eight, Ms. Wells inherited her passion for freedom fighting from her parents who were very active in the Republican party—and particularly from her father who was a member of the Freedman’s Aid Society and helped launch the HBCU Shaw University (which is now Rust College). When yellow fever took the lives of her brother and both her parents, Ms. Wells assumed the responsibility of caring for her six younger siblings and secured a job teaching. She was particularly upset, however, that her fellow white teachers made 50 cents more per hour more than she did simply because of her race. She then relocated to Memphis where she taught for a higher wage and attended Fisk University.
“Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.” -Ida B. Wells
In 1884, at age 22, Ms. Wells bought a first class ticket from Memphis to Nashville. When the train conductor informed her that she had to give up her seat and go to the Negro car, she refused. The conductor then tried to forcibly expel her from the train and she literally bit him. But she didn’t stop there. She went and filed a lawsuit against the railroad and won a settlement of $500 because the railroad had, in fact, violated the 1875 Civil Rights Act which banned discrimination on the basis of race in theaters, hotels, transports, and other public accommodations. However, the ruling was overturned in the Tennessee Supreme Court. (Mind you, this moment in history preceded Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.) As for Ms. Wells…oh, it was on.
Spurred by this event, Ms. Wells launched a career in journalism. She became owner and editor of the Black newspaper Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Under the pseudonym “Iola,” Ms. Wells wrote article after article about racial politics and injustices throughout the South. She simultaneously worked as a teacher in Memphis but was fired because of her highly vocal criticism of the unfair conditions at Memphis’ Blacks-only schools. She then began to write full time.
“The people must know before they can act and there is no educator to compare to the press. ” – Ida B. Wells
In 1892, three Black grocery store owners who were friends of Ms. Wells defended their store from being attacked by a racist mob. The mob tried to destroy the grocer because they were upset that the Black-owned store was more successful than a competing Caucasian business. Ms. Wells’ friends shot one of attackers and was subsequently placed in jail, kidnapped from jail and then lynched. Ms. Wells took to her pen and urged the Black community to leave Memphis, saying that it was a city that would “neither protect our lives or property, nor gives us a fair trial in court.” Blacks in Memphis heeded her words and left in droves.
Ms. Wells then took it upon herself to travel throughout the South investigating various lynching incidents. She noticed a pattern of how the lynchings were not, in fact, related to claims of rape or crimes committed by Blacks but instead directly linked to economic competition with Blacks resulting in financial and/or business loss among whites. Her writings on these discoveries inspired boycotts of white-owned businesses in Memphis and also led to several threats on her life along with the destruction and firebombing of her newspaper office.
She then resettled in Chicago where she continued to write and publish various essays and pamphlets on lynching. Increasingly alarmed by the ever-rising number of lynchings, Ms. Wells felt the need to do more to combat the murderous trend. To raise money and awareness, she lectured on the topic and met with white progressive leaders in England, Scotland and Wales. She was both inspired and excited by British women’s groups’ activism and encouraged her readers in America to launch civic groups of their own to impact change on city, state and national levels. While in England, Ms. Wells established the London Anti-Lynching Committee.
Once she returned home, Ms. Wells married F.L. Barnett, the editor and founder of an early Chicago Black newspaper, the Chicago Conservator. She believed she would retire following marriage and children but that never really happened as she continued to travel and write between the births of her four children. Joining W.E.B. Dubois and others in the Niagara Movement in 1906, she helped form the NAACP in 1909. She also helped establish the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She organized the Negro Fellowship League in 1910 and in 1913 established the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first Black women’s suffrage club. She became quite the regular in women’s suffrage meetings throughout the nation, befriended Jane Addams and participated in the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington D.C.
Ms. Wells also helped changed the nature of education by promoting inclusion and diversity within the classroom through her efforts in the settlement house movement. She personally met with President William F. McKinley to share details of a lynching in South Carolina and to make reforms to hopefully bring about the end of lynching altogether. All the while, she continued to write and was highly visible in her criticism of Booker T. Washington’s ideas on assimilation.
Finally in 1930, fed up with politicians in the Illinois State Legislature, she decided to run herself and was thus one of the first Black women ever to run for public office in America. Unfortunately, she lost her race. The next year, she died of kidney disease at the age of 68. Thankfully, her many writings still live on and can (and should) serve as moving inspirations to activists today.