Ida Wells, the daughter of a carpenter, was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. Her parents were slaves but they family achieved freedom in 1865. When Ida was sixteen both her parents and a younger brother, died of yellow fever. At a meeting following the funeral, friends and relatives decided that the five children should be farmed out to various aunts and uncles. Ida was devastated by the idea and to keep the family together, dropped out of High School, and found employment as a teacher in a local Black school.
In 1880 Ida moved to Memphis where she attended Fisk University. Ida held strong political opinions and she upset many people with her views on women's rights. When she was 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."
Ida became a public figure in the city when in 1884 she led a campaign against segregation on the local railway. After being forcibly removed from a whites only carriage she successfully sued the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railroad Company. However, this was overturned three years later by a ruling from the Tennessee Supreme Court.
In 1884 Ida began teaching in Memphis. She also wrote articles on civil rights for local newspapers and when she criticised the Memphis Board of Education for under-funding African American schools, she lost her job as a teacher.
Ida used her savings to become part owner of Free Speech , a small newspaper in Memphis. Over the next few years she concentrated on writing about individual cases where black people had suffered at the hands of white racists. This included an investigation into lynching and discovered during a short period 728 black men and women had been lynched by white mobs. Of these deaths, two-thirds were for small offences such as public drunkenness and shoplifting. the first conference of the NAACP she successfully persuaded the organisation to resolve to make lynching a federal crime.
On 9th March, 1892, three African American businessmen were lynched in Memphis. When Ida wrote an article condemning the lynchers, a white mob destroyed her printing press. They declared that they intended to lynch Ida but fortunately she was visiting Philadelphia at the time. Unable to return to Memphis, Ida was recruited by the progressive newspaper, New York Age . She continued her campaign against lynching and Jim Crow laws and in 1893 and 1894 made lecture tours of Britain. While there in 1894 she helped to establish the British Anti-Lynching Committee. Members included James Keir Hardie, Thomas Burt, John Clifford, Isabella Ford, Tom Mann, Joseph Pease, C. P. Scott, Ben Tillett and Mary Humphrey Ward.
In 1894 Ida married Ferdinand Barnett, the founder of the Conservator , the first African American newspaper in Chicago. Ida gave birth to four children: Charles (1896), Herman (1897), Ida (1901) and Alfreda (1904). She continued her involvement in politics and wrote pamphlets such as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law and Mob Rule in New Orleans .
In 1901 Ida published her book, Lynching and the Excuse for It. In the book she argued that the main aim of lynching was to intimidate blacks from becoming involved in politics and therefore maintaining white power in the South.
Ida was also one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909. At the first conference of the NAACP she successfully persuaded the organisation to resolve to make lynching a federal crime.
An early supporter of women's suffrage, Ida created a stir in 1913 when she refused to march at the back with other black delegates during a demonstration organised by the National American Women Suffrage.
Ida, who wrote for the Chicago Tribune, campaigned for racial equality in the United States Army during the First World War. This included publicizing the execution of black soldiers for minor offences while fighting for their country. After her retirement, Ida wrote her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928).
Ida Wells-Barnett died of uremia on 25th March, 1931.
In the ten years succeeded the Civil War thousands of Negroes were murdered for the crime of casting a ballot. As a consequence their vote is entirely nullified throughout the entire South. The laws of the Southern states make it a crime for whites and Negroes to inter-marry or even ride in the same railway carriage. Both crimes are punishable by fine and imprisonment. The doors of churches, hotels, concert halls and reading rooms are alike closed against the Negro as a man, but every place is open to him as a servant.
Eight Negroes lynched since last issue of the Free Speech. three were charged with killing white men and five with raping white women. Nobody in this section believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.
All my life I had known that such conditions were accepted as a matter of course. I found that this rape of helpless Negro girls and women, which began in slavery days, still continued without let or hindrance, check or reproof from the church, state, or press until there had been created this race within a race - and all designated by the inclusive term of "colored".
I also found that what the white man of the South practiced as all right for himself, he assumed to be unthinkable in white women. They could and did fall in love with the pretty mulatto and quadroon girls as well as black ones, but they professed an inability to imagine white women doing the same thing with Negro and mulatto men. Whenever they did so and were found out, the cry of rape was raised, and the lowest element of the white South was turned loose to wreak its fiendish cruelty on those too weak to help themselves.
No torture of helpless victims by heathen savages or cruel red Indians ever exceeded the cold-blooded savagery of white devils under lynch law. This was done by white men who controlled all the forces of law and order in their communities and who could have legally punished rapists and murderers, especially black men who had neither political power nor financial strength with which to evade any justly deserved fate. The more I studied the situation, the more I was convinced that the Southerner had never gotten over his resentment that the Negro was no longer his plaything, his servant, and his source of income.
Yesterday Miss Wells addressed public meetings held afternoon and evening in the Society of Friends Meeting House, Pilgrim Street, Newcastle. Miss Wells is a young lady with a strong American accent, and who speaks with an educated and forceful style, gave some harrowing instances of the injustice to the members of her race, of their being socially ostracized and frequently lynched in the most barbarous fashion by mobs on mere suspicion, and without any trial whatever. These lynchings are on the increase, and have risen from 52 in 1882 to 169 in 1891, and 159 in 1892. Her object in coming to England, she said, was to arouse public sentiment on this subject. England has often shown America her duty in the past, and she has no doubt that England will do so again.
A meeting was held yesterday at the Young Men's Christian Association assembly room to hear addresses upon the treatment of Negroes in the southern states of the American Union. Miss Wells in a quiet but effective address said it had been asked why she should have come four thousand miles to tell the people of Birmingham about something that could be dealt with very properly by the local authorities in America. She thought her story would answer that question.
Since 1875 the southern states had been in possession each of its own state government, and the privilege had been used to make laws in every way restrictive and proscriptive of the Negro race. One of the first of these laws was that which made it a state prison offense for black and white to inter-marry. That law was on the statute book of every southern state. Another of these restrictive laws had only been adopted within the last half dozen years. It was one that made it a crime by fine and imprisonment for black and white people to ride in the same carriage.
My return voyage was most delightful. First, there were few if any white Americans on board. Second, there were fifteen young Englishmen in one party on their way to visit the World's Fair. I had not met any of them previously, but one or two of them were members of the Society of Friends and they had read about my trip. They were as courteous and attentive to me as if my skin had been of the fairest. It was indeed a delightful experience. All this I enjoyed hugely, because it was the first time I had met any of the members of the white race who saw no reason why they should not extend to me the courtesy they would have offered to any lady of their own race.
There was an uneasy feeling that Mr. Booker T. Washington and his theories, which seemed for the moment to dominate the country, would prevail in the discussion as to what ought to be done. Although the country at large seemed to be accepting and adopting Mr. Washington's theories of industrial education, a large number agreed with Dr. Du Bois that it was impossible to limit the aspirations and endeavors of an entire race within the confines of the industrial education program.
Miss Anthony said when women called their first convention back in 1848 inviting all those who thought that women ought to have an equal share with men in the government, Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave, was the only man who came to their convention and stood up with them. "He said he could not do otherwise; that we were among the friends who fought his battles when he first came among us appealing for our interest in the antislavery cause. From that day until the day of his death Frederick Douglass was an honorary member of the National Women's Suffrage Association. In all our conventions, most of which had been held in Washington, he was the honored guest who sat on our platform and spoke in our gatherings
For nearly twenty years lynching crimes have been committed and permitted by this Christian nation. Nowhere in the civilized world save the United States of America do men, possessing all civil and political power, go out in bands of 50 to 5,000 to hunt down, shoot, hang or burn to death a single individual, unarmed and absolutely powerless. Statistics show that nearly 10,000 American citizens have been lynched in the past 20 years. To our appeals for justice the stereotyped reply has been the government could not interfere in a state matter.
Mr. D. W. Griffith, the creator of the film, took the stand and denied that there was anything in The Birth of a Nation which could be objected to. Griffith was a great artist and one of the leading geniuses in presenting photo plays. That he should prostitute his talents in what would otherwise have had the finest picture presented, in an effort to misrepresent a helpless race, has always been a wonder to me. I have often wondered if his failure to establish himself as a moving picture magnate is not because he chose to prostitute his magnificent talents by an unjust and unworthy portrayal of the Negro race.
The result of the court-martial of those who had fired on the police and the citizens of Houston was that twelve of them were condemned to be hanged and the remaining members of that immediate regiment were sentenced to Leavenworth for different terms of imprisonment. The twelve were afterward hanged by the neck until they were dead, and, according to the newspapers, their bodies were thrown into nameless graves. This was done to placate southern hatred. It seemed to me a terrible thing that our government would take the lives of men who had bared their breasts fighting for the defence of our country.
One morning very soon after we began distributing these buttons, a reporter from the Herald Examiner came into the office and asked to see one. I gave it to him and told him that the purpose was to give one to every member of our race who wanted to wear one.
The reporter went away with a button, and in less than two hours men from the secret service bureau came into the office with a picture of the button which I had given to the reporter. They inquired for me, showed me the button, and told me that they had been sent out to warn me that if I distributed those buttons I was liable to be arrested.
"On what charge?" I asked. One of the men, the smaller of the two, said, "Why, for treason."
"Will you give us the buttons?" I said no. "Why," he said, "you have criticized the government." "Yes," I said, "and the government deserves to be criticised."
"Well," said the shorter of the two men, "the rest of your people do not agree with you." I said, "Maybe not. They don't know any better or they are afraid of losing their whole skins. As for myself I don't care. I'd rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I have said. I would consider it an honour to spend whatever years are necessary in prison as the one member of the race who protested, rather than to be with all the 11,999,999 Negroes who didn't have to go to prison because they kept their mouths shut."
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
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Ida B. Wells-Barnett, née Ida Bell Wells, (born July 16, 1862, Holly Springs, Mississippi, U.S.—died March 25, 1931, Chicago, Illinois), African American journalist who led an antilynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s. She later was active in promoting justice for African Americans.
Where was Ida B. Wells-Barnett born?
Ida Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862.
How did Ida B. Wells-Barnett become famous?
Ida B. Wells-Barnett first grew to prominence by leading a campaign against lynching, first by writing newspaper columns but later through delivering lectures and organizing anti-lynching societies.
What was Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s occupation?
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a journalist by trade but also spent a lot of her time and energy organizing and participating in various civil rights campaigns and organizations.
What were Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s achievements?
Among Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s achievements were the publication of a detailed book about lynching entitled A Red Record (1895), the cofounding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the founding of what may have been the first Black women’s suffrage group.
Ida Wells was born into slavery. She was educated at Rust University, a freedmen’s school in her native Holly Springs, Mississippi, and at age 14 began teaching in a country school. She continued to teach after moving to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1884 and attended Fisk University in Nashville during several summer sessions. In 1887 the Tennessee Supreme Court, reversing a Circuit Court decision, ruled against Wells in a suit she had brought against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad for having been forcibly removed from her seat after she had refused to give it up for one in a “colored only” car. Using the pen name Iola, Wells in 1891 also wrote some newspaper articles critical of the education available to African American children. Her teaching contract was not renewed. She thereupon turned to journalism, buying an interest in the Memphis Free Speech.
In 1892, after three friends of hers had been lynched by a mob, Wells began an editorial campaign against lynching that quickly led to the sacking of her newspaper’s office. She continued her antilynching crusade, first as a staff writer for the New York Age and then as a lecturer and organizer of antilynching societies. She traveled to speak in a number of major U.S. cities and twice visited Great Britain for the cause. In 1895 she married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a Chicago lawyer, editor, and public official, and adopted the name Wells-Barnett. From that time she restricted her travels, but she was very active in Chicago affairs. Wells-Barnett contributed to the Chicago Conservator, her husband’s newspaper, and to other local journals published a detailed look at lynching in A Red Record (1895) and was active in organizing local African American women in various causes, from the antilynching campaign to the suffrage movement.
From 1898 to 1902 Wells-Barnett served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council. In 1909, she participated in the meeting of the Niagara Movement and the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that sprang from it. Although she was initially left off the NAACP’s controlling Committee of Forty, Wells-Barnett later became a member of the organization’s executive committee however, disenchanted with the NAACP’s white and elite Black leadership, she soon distanced herself from the organization.
In 1910 Wells-Barnett founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, which aided newly arrived migrants from the South. In 1913 she founded what may have been the first Black woman suffrage group, Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club. From 1913 to 1916 she served as a probation officer of the Chicago municipal court. She was militant in her demand for justice for African Americans and in her insistence that it was to be won by their own efforts.
Her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, was published posthumously in 1970.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.
Republicans in History: Ida B Wells
Nearly 70 years before Rosa Parks, Ida B. Wells, an outspoken Republican, and civil rights activist, was forcibly removed from a train car for refusing to surrender her train seat to a white male. Outraged, Ida picked up a pen, launching a heroic career fighting for civil rights for all Americans.
Wells was born on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi as a southern slave. After the Emancipation Proclamation, she was freed at about six months of age but her plight continued. She faced racial prejudices and was restricted by discriminatory rules and practices. Her parents were active Republicans during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, likely influencing her at an early age to support Republican values. Their influence, though, was short-lived. They died from yellow fever when Ida was 16. In order to prevent the separation of her younger siblings, Ida became a teacher despite having a basic education.
At the age of 22, after her train incident, Wells began a journalistic career. She wrote about Southern politics and racial issues under the pseudonym, “Iola.” Her articles were published in black periodicals, and she eventually became the co-owner and editor of the newspapers Memphis Free Speech and Headlight as well as Free Speech later in her career.
Wells’ writing was again impacted when, in 1889, her friend Thomas Morris was grotesquely lynched by a white mob. The incident left Wells scarred and compelled her to begin an anti-lynching crusade which she fought for throughout her life. She became an investigative journalist after Morris’ murder, researching and documenting Southern lynching cases with funding from sympathetic locals. Eventually, Wells published, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” an incriminating pamphlet illustrating her extensive research on lynching.
Wells’ pamphlets and articles outraged southerners, yet she remained adamant in her quest. Undaunted by death threats and dire warnings, she traveled to the South and continued writing despite putting her life in increasingly greater peril. In one incident, she published an inflammatory editorial which drove a Memphis mob to sack her newspaper office, destroying all her equipment.
Wells then moved to the North where she continued writing. She wrote for African-American periodicals such as the New York Age and began a series of lectures abroad. In 1893, while at the World’s Columbian Exposition, a ban on African-American visitors triggered Wells to write a new pamphlet entitled, “The Reason Why the Colored American is Represented in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” The pamphlet garnered support from notable figures such as the famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, and her future husband, Ferdinand Barnett.
In 1898, Wells took her crusade to Washington. She led a protest in which she demanded that President William McKinley, a fellow Republican, enact anti-lynching reforms. During this time she married Ferdinand Barnett and went on to have four children. She also went on to establish several organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women through which her noble cause of equality and civil rights was furthered.
Throughout her life, Wells proved herself to be a true Republican. Her anti-lynching crusade and unceasing call for civil rights illustrated fundamental Republican principles, including equality for all Americans under the law. Through her cry for liberty and zealous defense of equality, Wells proved herself to be an eternal ideal – a classic Republican activist.
Ida B. Wells’ International Appeal: The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition
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.
—Ida B. Wells, Memphis Free Speech, March 1892
The publisher, suffragist, and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells (later Wells-Barnett) (1862–1931) was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi. At the age of 20, she relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. After a stint teaching in a segregated school, Wells turned to journalism to record her horror at the many injustices suffered by Black people. As part-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, Wells found a receptive audience among the Black community for her editorials on segregated schools, lynchings, and racial discrimination. In the South, white editors, such as Edward Ward Carmack of the Memphis Commercial, subjected Wells to vociferous attacks.
In 1892, three successful Black Memphis businessmen were lynched. Thomas Moss, part owner of the People’s Grocery Store and a close friend of Wells, was one of the victims. In response, Wells penned rousing editorials for the Memphis Free Speech, including Moss’ dying plea for Black people to abandon Memphis and move west. Carmack, angered by Wells’ coverage of the murders, encouraged retaliation against “the black wench,” and the offices of the Memphis Free Speech were destroyed. Wells was out of town and escaped injury. She would not return to the South for another thirty years.
Wells eventually found herself in Chicago, where she turned her attention to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In the months leading up to the Expo’s opening on May 1, 1893, Wells petitioned its steering committee to include a pavilion showcasing the achievements of African Americans. Her efforts were rebuffed. She also protested the obvious discriminatory hiring practices, which denied many qualified Black applicants well-paying jobs. To appease Wells and her colleagues, social reformer Frederick Douglass (1818–95), journalist Irvine Garland Penn (1867–1930), and Wells’ future husband, lawyer Ferdinand Lee Barnett (1859–1936), the Expo’s managers designated August 25, 1893, as “Colored American Day,” with Douglass as the keynote speaker.
Ida B. Wells: A Suffrage Activist for the History Books
“If this work can contribute in any way toward providing 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.”
She fought tirelessly for the right of all women to vote, despite facing racism within the suffrage movement.
On August 18, 1920, Congress ratified the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote. But sadly, then as now, the law didn’t apply equally to all. Due to the prevalence of Jim Crow laws, it took another 45 years — and the passage of the Voting Rights Act — for Black women to be able to cast their ballots.
While women’s suffrage has often been associated with white women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it’s beyond time for us to recognize that pioneering Black activists like Ida B. Wells were fighting a bigger battle — against sexism and racism — and faced obstacles within their own movement.
Wells, who was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, was a prolific investigative journalist and suffragist who campaigned tirelessly for anti-lynching legislation. Her activism began in 1884, when she refused to give up her train car seat, leading to a successful lawsuit against the train company.
She took part in the first suffragist parade in Washington, D.C., in 1913, which was organized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, as the sole Black woman in the Illinois delegation. Wells marched with this group despite being asked at the last moment to move to the back of the procession with the segregated contingent.
Motivated in part by racism within the women’s suffrage movement, she went on to found and co-found a variety of civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of Colored Women and the Alpha Suffrage Club.
Wells fought for equality for women and Black people until her death in 1931. But her legacy lives on, including through the writing of her great-granddaughter Michelle Duster, author of Ida in Her Own Words: The Timeless Writings of Ida B. Wells from 1893.
Today, women of color are still unfairly disadvantaged at the polls, as certain jurisdictions work to suppress voting under the guise of preventing “voter fraud.” In the past 10 years alone, 25 states have put in place new voting restrictions that largely affect marginalized communities.
As we reflect on the contributions of crusaders like Wells, we can honor them by continuing their important — and unfinished — work on this milestone anniversary. For example, tell Congress it’s time to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore voting protections that were stripped away from the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
Because it is only when we can ensure that every voice is heard that we can achieve the full promise of the 19th Amendment — and turn this commemoration into a celebration.
Sage Sappenfield’s essay
Ida B. Wells famously said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” She lived her successful and influential life following this quote and strived to show all American citizens the truth about segregation. Wells spent her life fighting sexism, violence, and racism she also used her intelligence and experiences to become a journalist. Though she received many threats, she continued to face the dangers of standing up to racism in the United States and pursue her passion for protecting African American rights and treatment.
Ida B. Wells lived a very difficult childhood. Her parents passed when she was only 16 and she had to become a school teacher at a very young age in order to support her many young siblings. However, these struggles didn’t cause Wells to give up on her beliefs, she worked through them and stood up for what was right. Ida B. Wells put others’ safety and security in front of her own and that is why she is remembered as a hero, not only to African Americans but to every race and culture around the world.
Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862. She was born into slavery during the Civil War. As the war ended, her parents became very involved in politics and believed in the importance of a strong education. In 1878, Wells went to visit her grandmother. While she was there she was informed that a yellow fever epidemic had hit her hometown, the disease had taken both of Wells’ parents and her infant brother. The National Women’s History Museum says that Wells was forced to move her family of five younger siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, where she “continued to work various jobs as an educator.” These experiences and tough life decisions during Wells’ childhood are what inspired her passion for helping others and standing up for what she knows is right. Wells wanted the best possible life for her younger siblings so she began to stand up for her beliefs as she worked towards equality.
In 1884, Wells was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man. When she forcefully refused, he ordered her into the “colored person” car, even though she had bought a first-class ticket. Despite the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination of race, creed, or color, in theaters, hotels, transports, and other public accommodations, many railroad companies went against this act and racially segregated their passengers.
According to journalist Becky Little, “Ida B. Wells filed a lawsuit against the railroad company for unfair treatment,” she won the case and five hundred dollars in her local court, but the decision was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court of Tennessee. Wells fought for the equality of others even though she knew it could cause consequences for herself. She showed tremendous bravery when she sued the railroad company because African Americans were often turned down in court for their race.
In 1892, three of Wells’ close friends were lynched Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart. These men were the owners of People’s Grocery Company, and their small grocery store had taken away customers from a nearby competing white-owned business. A group of angry white men thought they would “eliminate” the competition so they attacked the store. The three men fought back, shooting, but not killing, one of the attackers. The owners of People’s Grocery Company were arrested, but a lynch-mob broke into the jail, dragged the men away from town, and brutally murdered all three.
The racial segregation that Wells faced during these events inspired her to share others’ experiences along with her own through local newspapers and any other resources she could find. This began her career in journalism, which led to the creation of many of her own newspapers, and eventually, organizations that more efficiently stood up for segregation.
Using her background in education, and her experiences with racial segregation, Wells became a journalist and began to write about African American rights and injustices, such as lynching. According to Duke University, “many papers wanted to hear about the experiences of the 25-year-old school teacher who stood up against white supremacy.” Wells investigated many lynching cases throughout Memphis and published her findings in pamphlets and local newspapers. As she began to expose the truth about unfair lynchings and the treatment of colored people, Wells received multiple threats from enraged white locals. After a few months, the threats became so bad Wells was forced to move to Chicago, Illinois.
In 1893, Wells joined other African American leaders throughout Chicago in calling for the boycott of the World’s Columbian Exposition. According to NWHM, “The boycotters accused the exposition committee of locking out African Americans and negatively portraying the black community,” which caused unneeded actions of segregation. Also during her time in Chicago, Wells helped develop numerous African American treatment reform organizations, such as co-founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One of Wells’ greatest accomplishments in Chicago happened alongside Jane Addams when they successfully blocked the establishment of segregated schools throughout the city. The contributions Wells had to the city of Chicago led to her name becoming well known throughout the country and inspired many people with similar beliefs to stand up for racial equality.
In 1895, Wells met Ferdinand Barnett, a widowed lawyer, and journalist who supported women’s suffrage and racial discrimination. She married him that year and changed her last name to the hyphenated “Wells-Barnett,” which according to NWHM was a very unique move at the time because it was a social norm for women to drop their last name entirely. The couple later had four children. Wells was able to balance motherhood with her journalism and activism, which once again proves how she put the welfare of others first and made a huge impact on our country.
Ida B. Wells is part of the reason why so many African American families throughout the United States have gotten to watch their children grow up in a world free of racial injustices. In her lifetime, Wells accomplished more than most people ever could. She worked through childhood struggles, showed courage when she stood up against powerful white men in court, used her writing skills to spread her research, and most of all, stood up for what she knew was right.
Though her actions were well ahead of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and s, Wells paved the way for the success of many other black activists. She spent her life working to ensure a feeling of security and safety for the next generations of African Americans, which is why she is remembered as a hero by so many. Though Wells is unable to see what an impact she has had on our nation, we can continue her legacy by celebrating Black History Month and making sure to never allow any type of segregation to happen again. We as individuals can also continue to stand up for what we know is right, just like Ida B. Wells once said, “one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
Frances Willard , secretary of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union , a women’s organizations with branches in every state and a membership of over 200,000, 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 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, 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 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 campaign against Wells in the American Press. The New York Timesran 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 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 led to the formation of the British Anti-Lynching Committee, which included the Duke of Argyll, the Archbishop of Canterbury, members of Parliament, and the editors of The Manchester Guardian.
Southern Horrors and The Red Record
In 1892 she published a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, andA Red Record, 1892–1894, which documented research on a lynching. Having examined many accounts of lynching based on alleged “rape of white women,” she concluded that Southerners concocted rape as an excuse to hide their real reason for lynchings: black economic progress, which threatened not only white Southerners’ pocketbooks, but also their ideas about black inferiority.
“The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.”
The Red Record is a one hundred page pamphlet describing lynching in the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation, while also describing blacks’ struggles since the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Red Record begins by explaining the alarming severity of the lynching situation in the United States. An ignorance of lynching in the U.S., according to Wells, developed over a span of ten years. Wells talks about slavery, saying the black man’s body and soul were owned by the white man. The soul was dwarfed by the white man, and the body was preserved because of its value. She mentions that “ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution,” therefore launching her campaign against lynching in this pamphlet, The Red Record.
Frederick Douglass wrote an article explaining three eras of Southern barbarism and the excuses that coincided with each. Wells goes into detail about each excuse:
- The first excuse that Wells explains is the “necessity of the white man to repress and stamp out alleged ‘race riots.’” Once the Civil War ended, there were many riots supposedly being planned by blacks whites panicked and resisted them forcefully.
- The second excuse came during the Reconstruction Era: blacks were lynched because whites feared “Negro Domination” and wanted to stay powerful in the government. Wells encouraged those threatened to move their families somewhere safe.
- The third excuse was: Blacks had “to be killed to avenge their assaults upon women.” Wells explains that any relationship between a white woman and a black man was considered rape during that time period. In this article she states, “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women.”
Wells lists fourteen pages of statistics concerning lynching done from 1892–1895 she also includes pages of graphic stories detailing lynching done in the South. She credits the findings to white correspondents, white press bureaus, and white newspapers. The Red Record was a huge pamphlet, not only in size, but in influence.
Despite Wells-Barnett’s attempt to garner support among white Americans against lynching, she felt her campaign could not overturn the economic interests whites had in using lynching as an instrument to maintain Southern order and discourage Black prosperity, specifically Black men’s economic ventures. Ultimately, Wells-Barnett concluded that reason and compassion for the plight of the Negro would never appeal to Southern whites. This pessimism however was not defeating. It made Wells-Barnett realize that armed resistance was perhaps the Negro’s only defense against lynching, and launched her efforts to use more powerful white nations like Britain to shame and sanction the racist practices of America.
Rhetorical Style and Effect
Always having been one to stand up for her beliefs, the incident that causes Ida B. Wells to take action against the injustices that she saw was the lynching of three grocery store owners.
Wells’ 1892 speech, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases is important as a historical document and as the initiating event in what became a social movement as a rhetorical work, it is significant in three respects.
First, as in her writings, she used evidence and argument in highly sophisticated ways that prevented members of the audience from dismissing her claims as biased or untrue.
Second, the speech was an insightful and sophisticated analysis of the interrelationship of sex, race, and class.
Third, in contrast to the rhetorical acts of women, this speech contained no stylistic markers indicating attempts by a woman speaker to appear “womanly” in what is perceived as a male role-that of rhetor.
Her use of evidence and argument had to overcome severe obstacles. She had to refute the cultural history of sexism that made the cry of rape (of a white woman) adequate justification for violence against Afro-Americans.
In order to prove this point, Wells used evidence from irrefutable sources. She used an excerpt from her own originally anonymous editorial in the Memphis Free Speech which was in response to the unlawful murders of three of her fellow townsmen, as well as two responses to her editorial from white newspapers: The Daily Commercial and The Evening Scimitar.
“Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” —Free Speech May 21, 1892
The Daily Commercial of Wednesday following, May 25, contained the following leader:
“Those negroes who are attempting to make the lynching of individuals of their race a means for arousing the worst passions of their kind are playing with a dangerous sentiment. The negroes may as well understand that there is no mercy for the negro rapist and little patience with his defenders. A negro organ printed in this city, in a recent issue publishes the following atrocious paragraph: “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will overreach themselves, and public sentiment will have a reaction and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.
The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern whites. But we have had enough of it.
There are some things that the Southern white man will not tolerate, and the obscene intimations of the foregoing have brought the writer to the very outermost limit of public patience. We hope we have said enough.”
The Evening Scimitar of same date, copied the Commercial’s editorial with these words of comment:
“Patience under such circumstances is not a virtue. If the negroes themselves do not apply the remedy without delay it will be the duty of those whom he has attacked to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison Sts., brand him in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.”
Always having been one to stand up for her beliefs, the incident that causes Ida B. Wells to take action against the injustices that she saw was the lynching of three grocery store owners.
Her 17 relatively detailed examples of the lynching of African Americans allowed her audience to weigh the evidence and consider its plausibility, and the fact that much of it came from the public press, in some cases from white southern newspapers as shown above, added to the credibility of her accounts. Emotional response was prompted by the argument of these details rather than by exhortation.
By examining her speech through an application of the tradition of classical rhetoric whose principles Aristotle was the first to codify, it is obvious that by including the gruesome details of the several lynchings she uses for examples, Wells is appealing to the ethos of her audience.
Throughout this argument there was a strong appeal to fundamental values of fairness, to the right to trial by jury, and to the right to full and careful investigation of crimes, appeals that added weight to her accusation that silent bystanders were guilty of complicity. These are also examples of Wells’ appeal to logos.
Wells was remarkable for her skill in the use of argument and evidence. Further, she was a woman who assumed the role of rhetor and made no attempt to give that role a womanly cast.
In addition to remarkable skill in the use of both argument and evidence, her work was also augmented through her exceptional personal record keeping throughout her life she kept detailed journals which are kept at the University of Chicago in special collections. These journals in her own handwriting reveal notes on special events and in the drafts of her autobiography there are references made to records she kept decades prior to beginning her autobiography.
Her attention to detail in the midst of all the struggles that surrounded her adds to her historical significance as an important rhetorician. When she wrote her autobiography she referred not only to her own detailed notes in journals throughout her life, but also to newspaper and other historical clippings.
Looking at the legacy of her work as an entire collection reveals her additional noteworthy ability to adapt a message to the audience she was addressing as she wrote not only in papers, and for speeches, but also in church pamphlets and for community organizations.
Her life reveals a tenacity to push ahead despite every obstacle- to promote an idea and use every possible resource at ones disposal. Wells used her position as a teacher, a community member, a political activist, a mother, an editor, and an ordinary citizen to disseminate her rhetorical work. Her grandchildren have established a museum, a scholarship, a yearly birthday celebration, and a website to continue her work.
Wells and W. E. B. Du Bois
The lives of W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells often ran along parallel tracks. Both used their journalistic writing to condemn lynching. Wells and Du Bois seemed to disagree on the story of why her name did not appear on the original list of NAACP founders. Du Bois implied that Wells had chosen not to be included. However, in her autobiography, Wells complains that Du Bois deliberately excluded her from the list.
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.
62. American Barbarism: Ida B. Wells
• B.C. Cooper, "''They are Nevertheless Our Brethren'': the Order of Eastern Star and the Battle for Women''s Leadership, 1874-1925," in P.P. Hinks and S. Kantrowitz (eds), All Men Free and Brethren : Essays on the History of African American Freemasonry (Ithaca: 2013).
• B.C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (University of Illinois Press, May 2017).
• B.C. Cooper, S.M. Morris and R.M. Boylorn (eds), The Crunk Feminist (New York: 2017).
• B.C. Cooper and T.B. Lindsey, M4BL and the Critical Matter of Black Lives (Honolulu: 2018).
• B.C. Cooper, Eloquent Rage: a Black Feminist Discovers her Superpower (New York: 2018).
• A.M. Duster (ed.), Crusade for Justice: the Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: 1970).
• J. Jones Royster (ed.), Southern Horrors and Other Writings: the Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Boston: 1997).
Wells-Barnett, Ida B.
Activist and writer Ida B. Wells-Barnett first became prominent in the 1890s because she brought international attention to the lynching of African Americans in the South. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. At the age of 16, she became primary caregiver to her six brothers and sisters, when both of her parents succumbed to yellow fever. After completing her studies at Rust College near Holly Springs where her father had sat on the board of trustees before his death, Wells divided her time between caring for her siblings and teaching school. She moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1880s.
Wells first began protesting the treatment of black southerners when, on a train ride between Memphis and her job at a rural school, the conductor told her that she must move to the train’s smoking car. Wells refused, arguing that she had purchased a first-class ticket. The conductor and other passengers then tried to physically remove her from the train. Wells returned to Memphis, hired a lawyer, and sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. The court decided in her favor, awarding Wells $500. The railroad company appealed, and in 1887, the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the previous decision and ordered Wells to pay court fees. Using the pseudonym “Iola,” Wells began to write editorials in black newspapers that challenged Jim Crow laws in the South. She bought a share of a Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight and used it to further the cause of African American civil rights.
After the lynching of three of her friends in 1892, Wells became one of the nation’s most vocal anti-lynching activists. Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart owned the People’s Grocery in Memphis, but their economic success angered the white owners of a store across the street. On March 9, a group of white men gathered to confront McDowell, Moss, and Stewart. During the ensuing scuffle, several of the white men received injuries, and authorities arrested the three black business owners. A white mob subsequently broke into the jail, captured McDowell, Moss, and Stewart, and lynched them.
Incensed by the murder of her friends, Wells launched an extensive investigation of lynching. In 1892, she published a pamphlet, “Southern Horrors,” which detailed her findings. Through her lectures and books such as A Red Record (1895), Wells countered the “rape myth” used by lynch mobs to justify the murder of African Americans. Through her research she found that lynch victims had challenged white authority or had successfully competed with whites in business or politics. As a result of her outspokenness, a mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and threatened to kill Wells. She fled Memphis determined to continue her campaign to raise awareness of southern lynching. Wells took her movement to England, and established the British Anti-Lynching Society in 1894. She returned to the U.S., settled in Chicago Illinois where she married attorney and newspaper editor Ferdinand L. Barnett in 1895.
Wells-Barnett also worked to advance other political causes. She protested the exclusion of African Americans from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and three years later she helped launch the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). In 1909 Wells was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also actively campaigned for woman’s suffrage.
Ida Wells-Barnett died in Chicago in 1931 at the age of 69.
Linda O. McMurry, To Keep the Waters Troubled: the Life of Ida B. Wells, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
John Hope Franklin and August Meier, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982).
Ida B. Wells- born a slave, educated in a post-Civil War south and left to care for her family at an early age. She grew to become a teacher, a writer, a crusader, a suffragist, a wife and mother. A woman of strength and character who dared to speak up and challenge those who desired to oppress others , even when her own safety was at risk.
How could we not talk about a woman like this?
Ida was born on July 16, 1862, the first of eight children to Jim and Lizzy Wells in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her father was the son of a plantation owner and one of his slaves her mother a slave. As always, please know that we go into so much more detail in the podcast- the early life story of Ida’s parents is really remarkable, but what they did at the end of the Civil War is even more so.
Jim, a skilled and trained carpenter and Lizzy a highly sought after cook, put down roots and took advantage of the post war opportunities that were presented to them. Ida and her siblings were all sent to school, all raised to be hardworking, respectable and full of faith.
It was a wonderful story of pulling themselves up and being role models for their children, until a Yellow Fever epidemic hit when Ida was 16. The illness took the life of both of her parents as well as that of a young brother. She stepped up and assumed the role as head of the family. She lied about her age to get a teaching job, enlisted the help of some extended family members and did what a lot of female head of families do now: she made it work.
A young and determined Ida
After a few years, Ida couldn’t take the stress and pressures of the lifestyle. At this point, her siblings were getting older and some could support themselves. She had a physically handicapped sister that required live-in assistance and was sent to an aunt’s home to live. Ida took her two youngest sisters and moved to the big city of Memphis, Tennessee to live with another aunt.
Confederate money issued from Holly Springs.
With some of the responsibility off of her, Ida took another teaching job and breathed, just a little. She enjoyed all that the city had to offer and lived the life of a young woman interested in the arts, learning, and making new friends.
But it didn’t take very long for her to realize that she had more to do than attend concerts. One day,while commuting via train, she was asked to leave the Ladies’ Car for another, less comfortable one. Ida had purchased a first class ticket, as she always did, and ignored the wishes of the conductor for her to leave her first class seat- as she always did when this happened.
Only this time, the conductor didn’t ignore her and physically tried to move her. Kicking and biting and fighting back, this tiny woman stood her ground. And got kicked off the train for her efforts.
The ensuing court battle was only the beginning of the life as a political activist for Ida Wells. When she became dismayed at the inferior conditions of the school system that she worked in, she spoke up. She began writing in church newspapers about the racial disparity in the Memphis schools. And ultimately lost her job because of it. But she wasn’t done crusading for what was right.
Ida had heard about lynching, of course she had. This was the post Civil War south, but like a lot of people, she had assumed that the vigilante “justice” that was carried out was justified. Until it happened to people that she knew. Good people.
Enraged, she began to write for (and eventually ended up being a part owner of) a newspaper called The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight (later shortened to Free Speech).
This type of career- held by a woman, a black women in a racially charged South- made Ida a target. She eventually was forced to flee Memphis and landed in Chicago.
This is the part where we get to talk about her love, attorney Ferdinand Barnett who is particularly suited to sharing his life with this strong, determined, unshy woman. We talk about her life as a wife and mother, and her never ending and far reaching efforts to end lynching.
Ida with her children, courtesy of University of Chicago
Her life continued to be one of championing causes and we do cover all that in the podcast. But in addition to her anti-lynching crusade she was a suffragist, and a founder of many organizations including the NAACP. She even staged an unsuccessful run for the Illinois State Senate!
Ida and Ferdinand surrounded by kids and grandchildren
Although the organizations that she helped found began to turn their backs on her, Ida Wells-Barnett worked hard until just prior to her death at age 68 in 1931.
Time Travel With The History Chicks
Ida’s family maintains a website in her honor. Find out more information about her life, get directions and information about the Ida Wells Museum in Holly Springs, click links to the Ida B.Wells Foundation and buy a t-shirt. Yes, a t-shirt. Oh, or a mug.
Ida B. Wells Museum in Holly Springs, MS
Books! Here are the ones that we recommend:
To Tell the Truth Freely, by Mia Bay
Ida Wells Memphis Diary, edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
They Say by, James West Davidson
Ida Wells: A sword Among Lions by, Paula J. Giddings
Here is a link to Project Guttenberg. It’s an online resource of free ebooks. This link should take you to the available Ida B.Wells publications. For *sing it* freeeeeee!
Want to peek at her Chicago house? A peek is all you can get, it’s a private residence, but that didn’t stop the National Park Service from making a page about her and the house. We love nps.gov.
You know what else we love? A good PBS American Experience and here is a very good one about the Reconstruction period.