Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Bell Wells-Barnett’s life was dedicated to ending horrible
injustices against African-Americans. She traveled the country,
speaking and writing about civil rights issues, unfair laws,
and crimes against blacks. As more and more civil rights laws
were ignored by society in the late 1800s, she became
increasingly involved in politics to stop the trend of social
injustice. She was instrumental in the fight against lynching,
proving that these acts were essentially murders of innocent
black men, women, and children, and boldly demanded that their
white murderers be held responsible for their crimes. Later in
life, she also founded or was involved in the creation of several
organizations encouraging the advancement of women and other
Ms. Wells was born into slavery
on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Though the Emancipation
Proclamation of 1863 was intended to be the beginning of freedom
for slaves, few were actually freed because the laws did not apply
to Union-controlled and their border states during the Civil War.
With the ending of the war in 1865 and the addition of the 13th
amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing civil
rights for African-Americans, Ida B., her parents, and her seven
siblings were finally freed and legally equal.
During the years to follow,
the South rebuilt and civil rights laws were enacted allowing
blacks to vote and to start businesses.
Education opportunities, generally created by blacks for blacks,
led to better jobs and better lifestyles. Black businessmen slowly
became competition for their white counterparts.
Education was very
important in the Wells family. Her father, who had worked as a
carpenter for his slave master, was involved
with the Freedmen’s Aid Society helping to start Shaw University,
a school for the newly freed slaves. Shaw University became Rust
College, which still exists in Holly Springs today. Ida attended
this school and was an excellent student. A yellow fever struck
Mississippi in 1878 and Ida’s parents and one of her siblings
died. Ida was determined to support her family to keep them together.
She decided, at 16, to take the teaching certification examination,
passing with flying colors. She went to work as a schoolteacher
near her rural Mississippi town. Though she was unsuccessful in
keeping the family together for long, her strength was only an
indication of what would come.
In 1881, Ida moved to Memphis and
started teaching at a country school at a dirt road intersection
in northern Mississippi just across the state line from the city.
Each day she rode the train to work. Her lifelong devotion to fighting
injustice began when she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad
Company for forcing her to sit in a smoking car when she had paid
for a first class pass. Two engineers had to physically drag her
(while white passengers applauded) from the train because she refused
to move. The railroad company paid her first lawyer to continuously
postpone the case. When she didn’t give up, they offered
a settlement, but she refused. With the help of a second lawyer,
she actually won the case and was awarded $500 in damages. However,
in 1887, the railroad company appealed and won, reversing the court’s
decision. Essentially, Ms. Wells had lost her case and was required
to return the $500 and pay $200 in damages to the railroad.
these years living the city, Ms. Wells enjoyed cosmopolitan
life. She loved to shop, attend baseball games, go horseback riding,
and attend literary club meetings. She was confident to the
of vanity. Most importantly, she was proud, indignant, and
unafraid to speak her mind. Her involvement with teaching in Memphis
led her to write articles for The Evening Star, a black-owned
newspaper, about the inequalities among the separated black and
She was eventually fired from her teaching job as a result
and went to work for The Evening Star full-time. Black newspapers
throughout the country reprinted her first article about her
In 1889, she was offered a job
with The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper by
its owners: J.L. Fleming, a Memphis businessman,
and Reverend Taylor Nightingale, pastor of the largest African-American
church in Memphis. She requested a position equal to editor at
the paper and they agreed. She traveled the country getting subscribers
and earning more and more money. Eventually, she purchased Reverend
Nightingale’s shares and became co-owner. She then started
printing the paper on pink paper so it would stand out.
1889, she was elected Secretary of the Colored Press Association,
where she received the nickname“The
Princess of the Press.” Her writing style was simple and
direct because, as she said in her autobiography, The Crusade
for Justice, she “needed to help people with little or
no schooling deal with problems in a simple, common-sense language.”
By 1890, the steadily improving
economic status among black people during the past twenty years
led to increased tensions between
whites and blacks. White men purposefully and successfully began
to enact new laws hindering the rights of black people. The infamous
Jim Crow system reinforced and legalized segregation. Violence
against black people increased, especially lynching meant to be
for suspected or actual criminal activity. The most common allegation
was that black men were raping white women, which Ms. Wells refuted
many times. In fact, she would soon write articles for The
Memphis Free Speech accusing white women of encouraging relationships
with black men.
Ms. Wells devoted her entire life
to proving that the
lynching of innocent men, women, and children were intentional
to scare the entire population, and thus suppressing any advancement
the African-American people had made since being freed from slavery.
Her first public involvement with lynching occurred in 1892 when
three black Memphis businessmen and friends of Ms.
Wells—Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart
—were violently killed. They owned the People’s Grocery Store in
an area of Memphis known at the time as “the Curve” (because
streetcar tracks curved sharply in the area). The store was in
direct competition with a white grocery store in the area, causing
daily arguments between whites and blacks. These arguments led
to threats against the men but they could not get police protection
because the store was right outside city limits. The police instead
told the men to arm and protect themselves.
On the night of March
5, 1892, three white men broke into the back of the store and
were shot and killed. The Memphis police
jailed over 100 black men, including the three owners, for suspicion.
Black men guarded the jail to prevent arbitrary lynching. After
a few calm days, the guards left and the prison guards let a
mob of white men into the jail. They took Moss, McDowell and Stewart
outside of town and violently lynched them. In an attempt to
further violence, the Sheriff was ordered to shoot on sight any
Negro causing trouble. The result was random shooting of blacks
by white people.
This incident sparked Ms. Well’s
investigation. She discovered that in 1892 alone, 161 blacks were
lynched in the United States.
In Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,
a compilation of her notes published in 1892, she wrote that lynching
was “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth
and property and thus keep the race terrorized.” She also
wrote an article for the front page of the Memphis Free Speech
and Headlight suggesting that African-Americans should leave
the town of murderers and move west.
A mass movement to Oklahoma
began. Blacks felt they could start their own communities in
this part of the country. Whites in Memphis
lost business and workers and began to write articles about how
horrible life was there. Ms. Wells personally visited Oklahoma,
returned to Memphis and reported favorably in her newspaper.
More and more people left the city.
During the 1880s and 1890s,
there were an average of 100 lynching cases per year in the United
States. She wrote
about eight lynching cases in the Memphis area in just one month
of 1892. Her article blaming white women for being with and encouraging
black men outraged white men in the city. Threats against her were
getting more intense and the offices of the Free Speech were
burned. She was being watched at home, on trains to and from work
work, and she knew she would have to leave town. At the end of
1892 she moved to New York, where she thought it would be safer
to speak out against injustice. She immediately received an offer
to write for and become part owner of The New York Age,
a prominent black newspaper. Ten thousand copies of her
first article about her experience
and her lynching investigation were distributed throughout the
In 1893, living now in Chicago,
she wrote an article called “The
Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian
Exposition” to protest the exclusion of African-Americans
from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. In 1895, she wrote “The
Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching
in the United States: 1892, 1893,
and 1894,” which included all her research of the past few
years. She started traveling the country asking for support in
putting a stop to lynching. People began to ask her to speak at
organization meetings and functions. She would spend the rest of
her life writing and giving speeches throughout the country and
Also, in 1895, she married Ferdinand
Lee Barnett, a prominent Chicago attorney and founder of the Chicago
Conservator, the city’s
first African-American newspaper. He immediately supported and
joined her fight. He sold his shares of the newspaper to his wife;
she bought out the other owners and was full-owner of the publication
at the age of 33.
During the next few years, Ms.
Wells had four children but continued reading, writing, and speaking.
a founding member of
the National Afro-American Council, which later became the NAACP.
She continuously petitioned Presidents William McKinley and Woodrow
Wilson to sign laws for the just treatment of African-Americans.
1896, she founded the National Association of Colored Women and
became increasingly devoted to the rights of women and children.
Two years later, she met with President William McKinley at the
White House. As a result of their meeting, he made a speech denouncing
lynching. However, no anti-lynching legislation was ever passed
In 1900, she wrote Mob Rule
in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death, the Story
His Life, Burning
Alive, Other Lynching Statistics, the story of Robert Charles,
a black man whose July death sparked the famous New Orleans race
riots in July 1900. Racial tension in New Orleans was rampant
during the Reconstruction era due to police harassment, brutal
violence, segregation, and intense hatred among races. During
a random police questioning, white officers shot and wounded Robert
Charles. He returned fire and escaped but was eventually found
and killed for trying to protect himself.
In 1909, a race riot
in Springfield, Illinois led to New York meetings between whites
and blacks to attempt to solve the lynching
and violence problem. Petitions led to the birth of the NAACP.
She was one of only two women to sign. The primary goal of the
organization was to achieve equal rights and fair treatment through
the court system. They were also determined to fight the KKK,
which was increasing in power and numbers in Georgia. Ms. Wells
to join the NAACP, but quickly left in protest when she realized
the leaders were white and nothing would be accomplished.
Wells and her husband, wealthy by this time, started and funded
the Negro Fellowship League in Chicago in 1910 to improve the
way of life for African-American men. They offered financial assistance,
better housing and employment counseling. This organization was
in existence until 1923.
In 1913, Ms. Wells started the
first black kindergarten in Chicago. She also created the Alpha
Club (these Ida B. Wells clubs
still exist today throughout the country) to support a constitutional
amendment allowing women to vote. In a parade to petition the
government in Washington, D.C., she was told she,
all African-American women, would have to march in the back.
She publicly refused to participate in the march, but at the last
herself at the front between two white male supporters. During
this process, she became more interested in politics and, in
1924, she ran for presidency of the National Association of Colored
but was defeated by Mary McLeod Bethune, a fellow crusader.
In 1930, she lost an election to
become Illinois State Senator, but became a pioneer for women candidates
in the future.
Ms. Wells was disappointed that
not much information was written about her so she wrote two autobiographies
Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells and The
Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells: An Intimate Portrait of the Activist
as a Young Woman (which was actually later published
and edited by her daughter).
Ironically, in her first autobiography,
she wrote that she obtained most of her information and statistics
from southern white newspapers
and journalists. Getting information from these already published
and white sources, nobody could question the accuracy or validity
of her writings.
Ms. Wells-Barnett is an inspiring
example of the power of the written word. Her tenacity, ambition,
desire for justice
changed history. She died on March 25, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois.
the preface of On Lynching: Southern Horrors, A Red Record
and A Mob Rule in New Orleans (a compilation of her major works),
she writes, “The Afro-American is not a bestial race. If
this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at
the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a
demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for
the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other
considerations are of minor importance.”
posted January 2004)
Links & Info
Crow Stories: Ida B. Wells, a part of
web site companion to the PBS television series The Rise and
Fall of Jim Crow,
features more information about Wells-Barnett, including links
to historical documents and video from the program.
Chicago Landmarks Association made her home from 1919 to 1929, located
at 3624 S. Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago, a historical landmark.
In 1990, the United States Postal Service issue a postage stamp
to honor her life.
- Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases. New York: New York
- The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian
Exposition—the Afro-Americans Contribution to Columbian
Literature, by Wells-Barnett,
Frederick Douglass, I. Garland Penn, and Ferdinand L. Barnett. Chicago:
Ida B. Wells, 1893.
- A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes
of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894. Chicago:
Ida B. Wells, 1895.
- Mob Rule in New Orleans. Chicago: Ida B. Wells,
- Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Edited
by Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Edited by Trudier Harris.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
- The Memphis Diary of Ida
B. Wells: An Intimate Portrait of the Activist
as a Young Woman. Edited by Miriam Decosta-Willis. Boston: Beacon,
- On Lynchings. Collection of Southern Horrors (1892), A
Red Record (1895), and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900).
Arno Press, 1969. Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1987. Amherst, N.Y. : Humanity
Books, 2002. (With an introduction by Patricia Hill Collins.)
- Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching
Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. Edited by Jacqueline Jones Royster.
Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
- The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not
in the World's Columbian Exposition—the Afro-Americans
Contribution to Columbian Literature,
Frederick Douglass, I. Garland Penn, and Ferdinand L. Barnett. Edited
by Robert W. Rydell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Many articles for The Memphis Free Speech
and Headlight, The New York Age, and the Chicago Conservator
The pamphlets published during her life include
- Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, 1892, 1893, 1894.
- The Reason why the Colored American is not in the World’s
Columbian Exposition, 1893.
- The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics
and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, 1895.
Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death, the
Story of His Life, Burning Human Beings Alive, Other Lynching
About the Author:
- McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick. Ida B. Wells-Barnett:
A Voice Against Violence. New York: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1991.
Angela. Princess of the Press: The Story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. New York: Lodestar Books, 1997.
- Klots, Steve. Ida Wells-Barnett: Civil
Rights Leader. Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.
Brenda. Black Stars: Africa-American Women Writers. New Jersey: John
Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000.
About the Author:
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