Ida B. Wells, a writer and activist, fought racial injustice all her life. She is best known for her fight against Lynching in the American South after the American Civil War. As a journalist, she wrote extensively about black Americans’ social injustice and voting rights for both blacks and women. She helped found several activist organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 2020, she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her research an exposé on Lynching, whites’ violent murder of black Americans.
Ida B. Wells’ early life was complicated.
Born on 16 July 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells began her life as an enslaved person during the American Civil War. Months after her birth, the Emancipation Proclamation freed her and her parents, James and Lizzie Wells.
Because her parents valued education, she attended Shaw University (now Rust College). In 1878, when Wells was 16, she learned that her parents and infant brother died from yellow fever while visiting her grandmother. As the oldest daughter, Wells had to quit school to take care of her siblings.
Wells convinced the school administrator of a nearby school that she was 18. She started working as a school teacher to support her family. In 1882, Wells moved the family to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with their aunt. She continued to teach at a Black school while continuing her education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The first important turning point for Ida B. Wells as an activist happened in 1884.
In May, Wells bought a first-class ticket for a train going from Memphis to Nashville. However, when she took her seat, the train personnel told her she needed to move to the car for Black passengers. Angered, Wells refused, and the train personnel forcibly removed her. She sued the train company, and initially, the Court awarded her $500, but the case was overturned in the Nashville Supreme Court.
After the train incident, Wells began writing about racial injustice and racial politics under the name Iola. After publishing articles in Black newspapers and magazines, she became the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper co-owner. Because of her criticism of segregated education, she was fired from her teaching position. That did not stop Wells from writing about racial injustice.
The murder of three Black Memphis businessmen in 1892 caused Wells to turn her pen against Lynching.
The three murdered businessmen, Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart, started a grocery store that competed with a White-owned store. While guarding their store against attacks, one night, they shot and injured some white vandals. They were arrested, but before the case went to court, a white mob killed the men in what later was called the People’s Grocery Lynching. Wells condemned the murders.
Wells went beyond writing about that incident, however. At considerable personal risk, she traveled through the South investigating Lynchings. At the time, it was dangerous for a Black woman to travel alone in the South, and she was deliberately going to places where Blacks had been murdered. Many of them had been killed with the help of the local law enforcement officers. Wells was aware of the risks but determined to find answers.
Wells visited the sites where Blacks had been murdered. She talked to witnesses and studied newspaper accounts and photos taken of the murders. Wells even hired private investigators to collect data. By the end, Wells had researched and documented over 700 Lynching cases.
Ida B. Wells argued that lynching of Black Americans was NOT criminal punishment as mainstream media suggested.
In some cases, Black men accused of rape had had consensual sex with white women. In most cases, neither rape nor sex had anything to do with the killings. Wells argued that these deaths were not justice but economically and racially motivated. The murders were terrorist tactics intended to control the Black population through fear. More, Wells had the data to back up her claims.
Wells’ editorial articles on Lynchings angered people. One article discrediting the claim that the murdered Black men had been rapists infuriated whites living in Memphis. A mob descended on the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight headquarters, destroying equipment. At the time, Wells was traveling, but she received death threats if she ever returned to Memphis.
Wells avoided the South for decades after that, but she continued to fight Lynching. She traveled the American North and Europe, speaking against it. Shortly after the mob wrecked her newspaper, she published a pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.
In 1895, Wells published a hundred-page document, The Red Record, in which she documented in detail the murders of Southern Blacks. She uses a combination of statistics and individual accounts of mob violence and the rationals used to justify them. In 1898, she took her Anti-Lynching fight to the White House, seeking reforms from President William McKinley.
Wells fought for racial justice and voting rights for women.
In 1893, she protested the ban on Black American exhibitors at the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. In response, she wrote a pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. Along with other Black activists, including Frederick Douglass and Ferdinand Barnett, she organized a boycott of the World Fair. She later married the lawyer Barnett in 1895 and changed her name to Wells-Barnett, an unusual decision.
In 1896, Wells helped establish many civil rights organizations, including The National Association of Colored Women (later renamed National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, NACWC). The NACWC sought to fight the Jim Crow South racial injustice and voting rights for women. Both causes mattered to Wells, who was also active in the suffragist movement.
In 1909, she attended the conference that created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Though her name is not listed officially as a founded member, she is generally considered one of its founders.
On 30 January 1913, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago
The Alpha Suffrage Club promoted voting rights for Black women. Wells was a vocal advocate for women’s suffrage. She criticized white feminists who ignored racial injustices and violence that Black Americans experienced.
As the Alpha Suffrage Club president, Wells was invited to join in the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., with some of her fellow club members. The organizers, wanting to avoid conflict with the Southern Suffragists, asked the Black women to march at the back of the parade, but Wells refused. She waited until white Chicago suffragists passed her and joined the parade.
The Legacy of Ida B. Wells.
She died the following year, on 25 March 1931, of kidney disease. Since her death, Ida B. Wells has been recognized with numerous honors, including being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988. On 5 May 2020, she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for her investigative reporting on the brutal Lynching of African Americans.