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Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida 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 minorities.

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.

During 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 point of vanity. Most importantly, she was proud, indignant, and unafraid to speak her mind. Her involvement with teaching in Memphis schools led her to write articles for The Evening Star, a black-owned newspaper, about the inequalities among the separated black and white schools. 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 railroad court case.

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.

Also in 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 punishment 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 murders intended 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 prevent 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 and at 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 country.

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 in Europe.

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. She became 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.

In 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 by Congress.

In 1900, she wrote Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death, the Story of His Life, Burning Human Beings 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 and illegal 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 was asked to join the NAACP, but quickly left in protest when she realized the leaders were white and nothing would be accomplished.

Ms. 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 Suffrage 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, along with all African-American women, would have to march in the back. She publicly refused to participate in the march, but at the last minute, positioned 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 Women 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 before her death: The 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, courage and desire for justice changed history. She died on March 25, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois.

In 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.”

(Article first posted January 2004)

Karen Rutherford

Related Links & Info

Ida B. Wells as a young woman
Jim 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Ida B. Wells-Barnett's home in Chicago, 1919-1929
The 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.

Publications

Nonfiction:

  • Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases. New York: New York Age, 1892.
  • The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition—the Afro-American’s 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, 1900.
  • Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Edited by Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
  • Selected 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, 1995.

Editions:

  • 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-American’s Contribution to Columbian Literature, by Wells-Barnett, Frederick Douglass, I. Garland Penn, and Ferdinand L. Barnett. Edited by Robert W. Rydell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Articles/Pamphlets:

Many articles for The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, The New York Age, and the Chicago Conservator

The pamphlets published during her life include the following:

  • 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.
  • Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death, the Story of His Life, Burning Human Beings Alive, Other Lynching Statistics, 1900.

Bibliography:

About the Author:

  • McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick. Ida B. Wells-Barnett: A Voice Against Violence. New York: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1991.
  • Shelf-Medearis, 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.
  • Wilkinson, Brenda. Black Stars: Africa-American Women Writers. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000.

Internet Resources

About the Author:

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