Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a fearless anti-lynching crusader, suffragist, women’s rights advocate, journalist, and speaker of international stature. She stands as one of our nation’s most uncompromising leaders and most ardent defenders of democracy. She was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862 and died in Chicago, Illinois, in 1931 at the age of 69.
This essay is excerpted from the Living Book Beyond Dr. King: More Stories of African American Achievement.
Although enslaved prior to the Civil War, Ida’s parents were able to support their seven children because her mother was a well-known cook and her father a skilled carpenter. When Ida was only fourteen, a tragic epidemic of yellow fever swept through Holly Springs and killed her parents and youngest sibling. Emblematic of the righteousness, responsibility, and fortitude that characterized her life, Ida kept the family together by securing a job as a teacher. She managed to continue her education by attending nearby Rust College, and eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with her aunt and help raise her youngest sisters.
It was in Memphis where she first began to fight (literally) for racial and gender justice. In 1884, she was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man. The conductor ordered her into the smoking car that doubled as the “Jim Crow” car (a term for laws that segregated people by race), which was already crowded with other riders. Despite the 1875 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color in theaters, hotels, transports, and other public accommodations, several railroad companies defied the law and continued to segregate their passengers.
Wells refused to budge, citing her status as a lady and a non-smoker who therefore belonged in the ladies’ car, rather than the less-comfortable one reserved for African Americans. Deaf to her objections, the conductor forcibly removed Wells from the train — to the applause of white passengers. When Wells returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an attorney and sued the railroad for mistreatment. She won her case in local court but the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and it reversed the lower court’s ruling. This was the first of many struggles for social justice and human dignity in which Wells engaged over her lifetime. From that moment forward, Wells worked tirelessly and fearlessly to fight gender and race-based injustice and violence.
Wells’ suit against the railroad company also sparked her career as a journalist. Many newspapers wanted to hear about the experiences of the 25-year-old school teacher who stood up against white supremacy. Her writing career blossomed in publications geared to African American and Christian audiences, as well as British newspapers. In 1889 Wells became a partner in the Free Speech and Headlight, a newspaper owned by the pastor of the Beale Street Baptist Church, Reverend R. Nightingale. Rev. Nightingale encouraged his large African American congregation to subscribe to the paper and, as a result, the publication flourished. This enabled Wells to leave her teaching job and support herself as a writer, editor, and later speaker both in the U.S. and abroad.
Tragedy stuck Wells’ life again in 1892 when three of her friends were lynched (mob murder without legal sanction). Their names were Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart. The three men were owners of People’s Grocery Company and some felt that their store had diverted customers from competing white-owned businesses. In response, a group of angry white men tried to eliminate the competition by attacking People’s Grocery but the owners fought back, shooting one of the attackers. The owners of People’s Grocery were arrested but before long a lynch-mob broke into the jail in which they were being held. The mob dragged the incarcerated men out of town and brutally murdered all three. This atrocity catalyzed Wells’ outrage. She wrote in The Free Speech:
The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. 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.
Many people took the advice Wells penned in her paper and left town. Other members of the black community organized a boycott of white-owned businesses to express their indignation at the atrocities. Uncowed by the horrific events, Wells continued her muckraking and investigative journalism until her newspaper office was destroyed in retaliation. Wells could not return to Memphis, so she moved to Chicago, where she could pursue her journalistic endeavors. She continued her blistering editorials on Southern injustices in local, national, and international publications, investigating and exposing the fraudulent “reasons” white supremacists used to rationalize the lynching of black men, which had by then become a common occurrence.
In Chicago, Wells also helped develop numerous African American women’s and reform organizations. Throughout, she remained committed to her anti-lynching crusade, publishing the pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), with her image emblazoned on the cover. In 1895 Wells married attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett, the editor of one of Chicago’s early black-owned newspapers, and bore four children, which slowed but did not stop her activism. She became a tireless worker for women’s suffrage, and participated in the historic 1913 Washington, D.C., march for universal suffrage. Unable to tolerate injustice of any kind, Wells-Barnett, along with Jane Addams (a pioneering social worker and later recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize), successfully blocked the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago.
In 1906, she joined with W.E.B. Du Bois and others to further the Niagara Movement, an African American civil rights movement that opposed racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and the conciliatory strategy favored by other black activists like Booker T. Washington. Wells-Barnett was one of two African American women to sign “the call” to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, becoming one of the organization’s founding members. Due to her vocal opposition to Washington’s approach, however, she was branded a “radical” and blocked from assuming leadership positions within the group.
As late as 1930, Wells-Barnett became so disillusioned with the major parties’ nominees to the state legislature that she decided to run for the Illinois State Legislature, becoming one of the first African American women to run for public office in the United States. Wells-Barnett passed away a year later, after a lifetime crusading for justice.