Wells-Barnett, Ida B.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett 1862-1931
American social activist and writer.
Wells-Barnett was one of the most important African-American women reformers of her day. Her anti-lynching campaigns, as well as her efforts on behalf of women's suffrage and issues of justice for black Americans, have given her an important place in American reform history.
Wells-Barnett was born in Holly Springs, Missouri, on July 16, 1862, the oldest of eight children in the Wells family. She attended Shaw University (later renamed Rust College), a school established for freedmen after the Civil War. She assumed the care of her younger siblings following the death of her parents, taught school for a time in Holly Springs, and later moved to Memphis, Tennessee. In 1884, she sued the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railroad for removing her from an all-white railroad car. Although she eventually lost the suit, this event marked the beginning of her lifelong pursuit of social justice for African Americans. Wells-Barnett worked for a number of African-American newspapers and magazines in Memphis, writing about such issues as the deplorable conditions in local black schools. After the office of her employer, Free Speech, was destroyed following her stories on the evils of lynching, she decided to moved to New York City to work for the New York Age. There she launched an anti-lynching campaign, publishing two booklets on the subject drawn from her feature stories. As her fame spread, she began a lecture tour of England, Wales, and Scotland, bringing to the world a new awareness of lynching practices in the American South. Wells-Barnett continued her search for justice by protesting the lack of a black presence at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and also earned the unofficial title “Mother of Clubs” when she encouraged the growth of many black women's clubs. After her marriage in 1895 to Ferdinand L. Barnett, an African-American attorney and another social activist, she devoted several years to motherhood. Later she continued her campaign for equal rights for blacks and also founded the first women's suffrage club for black women. Her crusades against violence and injustice continued well into the 1920s. She died on March 25, 1931, in Chicago.
Wells-Barnett's best-known works were her accounts of lynching practices, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 (1895). In these works she indicts, in strong, readable prose, the hypocrisy of American whites who used any pretext, such as trumped-up rape charges and miscegenation laws, to justify the murder of blacks. With Frederick Douglass, I. Garland Penn, and her future husband, Ferdinand L. Barnett, Wells-Barnett issued a pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition, in 1893. Her Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death (1900) was another account of a real-life example of gross injustice toward blacks. As she continued her newspaper crusade against violence, she visited Arkansas in the early 1920s, where she investigated the murder of twelve innocent African-American farmers, publishing her report in 1922 as The Arkansas Race Riot. Toward the end of that decade Wells-Barnett began her autobiography, which her daughter, Alfreda Duster, published posthumously in 1970 as Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. An edited version of The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells was also published posthumously in 1995.
Very early critical reaction to Wells-Barnett's work in the newspapers of the day was generally confined to negative or favorable reviews of her anti-lynching speeches and editorials. Although Wells-Barnett's name appeared in a number of reference books devoted to African-American notables during the early and mid-twentieth century, interest in her life and writings was not strong until the publication of her autobiography, edited by her daughter, in 1970. Coming as it did at the height of the American civil rights movement and at the beginning of the feminist movement, the autobiography kindled a new interest in Wells-Barnett as a radical speaker and writer. During the 1980s and 1990s a number of journal articles on Wells-Barnett appeared which dealt with her rhetorical style, her importance to the field of black female autobiographical narrative, and the social, moral, and historical contexts for her work. Two critical biographies of Wells-Barnett in 1990 and 1998, along with the publication of a collection of her selected works in 1991 and the edited version of her Memphis diary in 1995, have brought even more critical attention to this important American crusader, whose stated ideals of equality and justice resonate to this day.
Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (booklet) 1892
The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition—the Afro-American's Contribution to Columbian Literature [with Frederick Douglass, I. Garland Penn, and Ferdinand L. Barnett] (pamphlet) 1893
A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 (booklet) 1895
Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death (pamphlet) 1900
The Arkansas Race Riot (pamphlet) 1922
Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (autobiography) 1970
Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (collected prose) 1991
The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells: An Intimate Portrait of the Activist as a Young Woman (diaries) 1995
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SOURCE: Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. “Style and Content in the Rhetoric of Early Afro-American Feminists.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 72 (November 1986): 434-45.
[In the following excerpt from a rhetorical analysis of the speeches of Sojourner Truth, Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, Campbell points out that Wells-Barnett's style shares many aspects of similar speeches by other reformers but that she disdained traditional “feminine” modes of rhetoric.]
Afro-American women, in addition to the special problems arising out of slavery, historically faced the same problems as all other women. Married, they were dead civilly; unmarried, they were dependents with few possibilities for self support; regardless of marital and socio-economic status, they were oppressed by the cult of true womanhood, which declared that true women were pure, pious, domestic, and submissive.1 As a result, even free Afro-Americans in the North prior to the Civil War confronted the same proscriptions against speaking in public as their middle-class white counterparts, and when they spoke, they were censured.2
It is not surprising, then, that Afro-American women's rhetoric from the 1830s to 1925, the period usually accepted as that of the earlier United States feminist movement, should present problems for the rhetorical critic. Sometimes these Afro-American women rhetors can be viewed as...
(The entire section is 4504 words.)
SOURCE: Braxton, Joanne M. “Crusader for Justice: Ida B. Wells.” In Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition, pp. 102-138. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
[In the following chapter from her full-length study of a number of autobiographical narratives written by African-American women, Braxton analyzes Wells-Barnett's Crusade for Justice both as an historical memoir and a confessional.]
Who shall say that such a work accomplished by one woman exiled and maligned by that community among whom she had so long and so valiantly labored, bending every effort to the upbuilding of the manhood and womanhood of all races, shall not place her in the front rank of philanthropists, not only of the womanhood of this race, but among those laborers of all ages and all climes?
—G. B. Mossell (1894)
The importance of black autobiography as literature and history is well documented. The historian John Blassingame views black autobiography as “a counterweight to the white historian's caricature of black life,” possessing a “therapeutic value” for both authors and readers, “a vehicle blacks used to express their true feelings without having them distorted by whites.” One of the “mainsprings of the black novel,” autobiography has also been “one of the major forums of black...
(The entire section is 13026 words.)
SOURCE: Townes, Emilie Maureen. “Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Her Social and Moral Perspectives.” In Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope, pp. 107-30. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1993.
[In the following full-length study of the ways Wells-Barnett's life typified the experience of African-American women reformers of her day, Townes examines the social and moral content of Wells-Barnett's writings.]
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an active participant in the women's club movement and other programs for social changes of her time. Her deep and abiding spirituality was forged in the Black Church of the South. Her rebellion against the traditional roles assigned to women emerged in her career as activist and newspaper journalist. She bowed to societal conventions surrounding domesticity and took time away from the socio-political world to raise her children, returning to her work as quickly as time and circumstance allowed. Her concern for decent jobs and wages for African-Americans found voice and action in the Negro Fellowship League.
Wells-Barnett responded to and helped shape her era. The greatest contribution she made to United States society as a whole was her untiring work in the anti-lynching movement. Her work in this movement was shaped by the political, social, cultural, and economic movements of her day. She attempted an integrated analysis of discrimination and violence, and sought to call...
(The entire section is 7869 words.)
SOURCE: Boyd, Melba Joyce. “Canon Configuration for Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” Black Scholar 24, no. 1 (winter 1994): 8-13.
[In the following essay, Boyd reviews two books and one film which have helped to revive interest in Wells-Barnett's life and works.]
One hundred and one years ago, the Worlds Congress of Representative Women, a black women's organization, was founded in order for black Americans to levy some representation at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. As a response to another blatant act of racial discrimination, F. L. Barnett, J. Garland Penn, Frederick Douglass, and Ida B. Wells wrote and published The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition. The introduction was translated into French and German, and the pamphlet was distributed to patrons of the exposition.
“Lynch Law” by Ida B. Wells was included in the pamphlet, an essay that explains the racist psychology of American society, as it details the horrors and provides the statistics that amplify this national shame. In her condemnation of the media's complicity with the perpetrators, she asserts:
The men who make these charges encourage or lead the mobs which do the lynching. They belong to the race which holds Negro life cheap, which owns the telegraph wires, newspapers, and all other communication with the outside world....
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SOURCE: Foreman, P. Gabrielle. Review of The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells, by Ida B. Wells-Barnett. African American Review 31 (summer 1997): 363-65.
[In the following review, Foreman gives a favorable assessment of a published edition of Wells-Barnett's diary.]
To know Ida B. Wells, more than a hundred years after she launched her journalistic career, is to love her. We admire the courageous newspaper editor who in the same year her friend Thomas Moss was lynched in Memphis published an editorial that declared: “Nobody in this section believes that old threadbare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will overreach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” Those of us who know of Ida B. Wells tend to think of a woman of almost mythic proportions, an unflinching anti-lynching activist who challenged new railway segregation laws in the 1880s and won (though the case was soon overturned), who in 1892, the year she began her crusade and published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, almost single-handedly turned back the flow of lynchings in the U.S. When we think of Wells we imagine a founding member of the NAACP who also insisted that every African American family should own a Winchester, a fiery woman who vowed that in the face of white violence she would...
(The entire section is 1399 words.)
SOURCE: McMurry, Linda O. “Antilynching Lectures.” In To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells, pp. 169-87. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
[In the following chapter from her biography of Wells-Barnett, McMurry discusses the social and rhetorical contexts of her subject's early anti-lynching lectures.]
Soon after moving to Memphis, Ida B. Wells had become active in the literary and dramatic circles of that city's vibrant black community. Almost immediately she had discovered her love of the platform and stage. Although she toyed with the idea of becoming an actress, like other young women of her era, Wells soon realized that the stage could not provide adequate respectability or remuneration. Very few women speakers could support themselves on the lecture circuits either; for a long time, women had rarely been allowed to speak out in public at all. Nevertheless, while earning her living teaching and writing, Wells utilized the available forums in Memphis and spent scarce dollars on elocution lessons.
Her journalistic ties eventually provided Wells with opportunities to exercise her oratorical skills beyond her home town, at regional and national meetings. Her first lectures outside of Memphis were at National Press Association conferences. Her speeches there and at the meeting of the Afro-American League at Knoxville in July 1891 gained favorable coverage in...
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Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs, ed. Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925, pp. 462-75. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Listing of biographical and critical sources relating to Wells-Barnett as an orator.
Deegan, Mary Jo, ed. “Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” In Women in Sociology: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, pp. 432-39. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.
List of primary and secondary works, focused mostly on Wells-Barnett as a social reformer.
Harris, Vergie Nobles. “Wells-Barnett, Ida.” In African-American Orators: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook, edited by Richard W. Leeman, pp. 367-69. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Overview of biographical and critical sources on Wells-Barnett.
Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed. “Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” In African American Authors, 1745-1945: Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000, 465 p.
Biographical, thematic, and bibliographical overview.
Shockley, Ann Allen. Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000, 465 p.
List of works relevant to Wells-Barnett's life and times.
(The entire section is 503 words.)