Study Guide

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

by Ida Bell Wells

Ida B. Wells-Barnett Essay - Critical Essays

Wells-Barnett, Ida B.

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Karlyn Kohrs Campbell (essay date November 1986)

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 part of the tradition of early women's rhetoric, sometimes they differ from that tradition in style, sometimes in content.3 I shall argue that a simultaneous analysis and synthesis is thus necessary in order to understand these similarities and differences, and I shall illustrate convergences and divergences through speeches made by Sojourner Truth, by Ida B. Wells, and by Mary Church Terrell. …

IDA B. WELLS

Many Afro-American women were involved in efforts for woman suffrage, because they saw the vote as a means to fight for their own cause, particularly against segregationist legislation that denied Afro-Americans continued participation in or entry into American life. Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell were part of this group. Wells, for example, founded the first Afro-American woman suffrage club, and Church Terrell spoke at National American Woman Suffrage Association Conventions and at the International Council of Women in Berlin between 1898 and 1905.4 However, their primary concerns were the problems of Afro-Americans, especially the practice of lynching. The conjunction between the concerns of Afro-American and white women is clearest in their common cause on the issue of lynching.

Ida B. Wells's speech, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” delivered in 1892, stands as a counterpoint to two more frequently studied rhetorical events.5 On December 22, 1886, Henry Grady, a prominent white southern journalist delivered a speech on “The New South” to the New England Society of New York City at its annual banquet.6 Wells referred to Grady's speech and made explicit the fact that her speech was intended to be a dramatic refutation of the picture of the South that Grady had painted. Three years after Wells began her anti-lynching campaign, Booker T. Washington was invited to address the opening of the Cotton States' Exposition at Atlanta, Georgia, on September 18, 1895.7 Washington addressed a mixed audience of white and Afro-Americans and articulated the view that southerners of both races could cooperate in all things economic while remaining socially separated. His gradualist views were in contrast to those of W. E. B. Du Bois, who demanded full legal equality and economic opportunity. Wells's speech makes clear that she sided with Du Bois and, like him, she was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In fact, Wells's calls for economic boycotts and armed self-defense would have been congenial to Black Power advocates of the 1960s.

Wells's speech is important as a historical document and as the initiating event in what became a social movement; as a rhetorical work, it is noteworthy in three respects. First, as in her writings, she used evidence and argument in highly sophisticated ways, 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 other 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.

Wells's 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.8 She had to show that lynchings were frequent and that rape was not even alleged in a majority of cases. She had to draw this evidence from unimpeachable sources, and she had to use the statements of whites to reveal the real motives behind these acts.

The evidence Wells presented was part of a carefully constructed case. Initially, she argued: “White men lynch the offending Afro-American, not because he is a despoiler of virtue, but because he succumbs to the smiles of white women.” Some seventeen relatively detailed examples were presented in support of this claim. The detailed examples 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, added to the credibility of her accounts. She left her audience in no doubt that real human beings were caught in lethal dilemmas again and again throughout the South, and emotional response was prompted by the argument of these details rather than by exhortation.

Her argument revealed the terrible double standard: “[I]t is not the crime but the class,” she said, referring to the fact that when the victims were Afro-American women, no protection was afforded, no avenging was needed. Once again, her proof was a series of six dramatic examples intended to show that there was no concern to protect Afro-American women or female children or to punish those who assaulted them. Hence, if the reason for lynching was not the protection of white womanhood, some other motive was at work. Wells argued that lynching was done to control Afro-Americans—lynching was political, with the allegation of rape used as justification. She first pointed to the other forms of control that were then widespread throughout the South, the “Jim Crow” laws that had been passed since the 1875 Civil Rights Act had been declared unconstitutional in 1883.9 Wells noted that, despite these other forms of control, lynching had increased. Here she used evidence gathered by a northern white newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, to document with statistics the extent of the problem and the fact that, in only one-third of the cases, was rape even alleged.

She then cited two editorials from white newspapers in Memphis. The first quotation embodied the mythology of the bestial Afro-American rapist, despite the fact that no incidents supporting that mythology had occurred in the city of Memphis, the source of the editorial. The second editorial made explicit the intent to coerce submission through violence. It was a classic statement of the view that “uppity Negroes” should be punished violently.

Wells went on to describe the 1892 lynching in Memphis about which she had written and for which her life had been threatened. This particular lynching, occasioned by economic competition, became a paradigmatic case of lynching throughout the South. Wells concluded by stating that all who disapproved of lynching and remained silent became accessories, because lynch mobs would not persist if their members knew that the forces of law and order would be used against them. 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.

Wells concluded that, given the legal protection or redress, Afro-Americans had to turn to self-help. They had to learn the facts of such cases for themselves in order to judge what the truth was. Such cases called for investigative reporting such as her own. They had to use economic boycotts to demand appropriate legal action against lynchers, and they needed to arm themselves to act in self-defense to prevent mob violence. Here, too, examples were used, including that of Memphis where a boycott in response to the 1892 lynching had had some effect, although not enough to force action against the lynchers, all of whose names were known. Two examples where lynchings were prevented by armed self-defense were noted but not detailed. Wells ended by proposing that these three solutions in concert could solve the problem, that is, stamp out lynch law.

Wells made a carefully constructed case that rested on kinds of evidence that made the problem vivid, demonstrated its scope, supported the speaker's analysis of its causes, and suggested the futility of alternative solutions. Wells understood the kind of problem she faced. Given the general acceptance of the mythology that lynching was caused by sexual assaults on white women, Wells knew that her audience would find it hard to believe her. The evidence was carefully selected to prevent such a response. Hearers and readers encountered case after case that challenged that casual assumption. They learned the statistical facts from a white northern newspaper. They heard the mythology and the political coercion out of the mouths of the editors of newspapers in the very town from which Wells had been driven. Wells was calling into question her audience's prior beliefs and opening their minds to future evidence.

The soundness, indeed the power of Wells's analysis of the relationship of sex, race, and class in the phenomenon of lynching, is attested to by the fact that her conclusions recurred in the resolutions, declarations, and speeches of southern white women. What follows is not a story of interracial cooperation, but of the convergence of the concerns of Afro-American and white women.

In response to the lynching of an Afro-American farm laborer named George Hughes, a Texas suffragist named Jessie Daniel Ames founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) in 1930.10 The goals of this all-white group were to find practical ways to prevent lynchings, to convince southern white women that lynching posed a threat to their own...

(The entire section is 4504 words.)

Joanne M. Braxton (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 13026 words.)

Emilie Maureen Townes (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 7869 words.)

Melba Joyce Boyd (essay date winter 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 4067 words.)

P. Gabrielle Foreman (review date summer 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 1399 words.)

Linda O. McMurry (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 8086 words.)