Ida B. Wells-Barnett

(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111202696-WellBarnett.jpg Ida B. Wells-Barnett Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: An organizer of the antilynching movement, Ida B. Wells was an indefatigable crusader for equal rights for African Americans in the violent decades around the turn of the century, working on issues of education, social services, woman suffrage, and racial violence.

Early Life

Ida Bell Wells was the eldest of eight children born in slavery to slave parents who were both of mixed racial parentage. (Her paternal grandfather was her grandmother’s white owner, and her mother’s father was an American Indian.) Both had learned trades during slavery—carpentry and cooking—which they were able to continue after the Civil War. In the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, both parents and the youngest child died, leaving Ida as the sole support of the younger children. Refusing offers from relatives and friends to parcel out the children, sixteen-year-old Ida decided to get a job as a schoolteacher. She had been educated at the Freedmen’s School in Holly Springs (later Rust College). She successfully took the teacher’s exam for the rural county schools and was able to “pass” for eighteen, teaching all week and riding a mule six miles home for the weekend. (A family friend stayed with the siblings during the week.) Later, she secured a better-paying position in Memphis. In 1886—after traveling to Fresno, California, with her aunt and siblings—she actually taught school in three different states: California, Missouri, and Tennessee.

Her activist career began in 1884, when she was forcibly ejected from the ladies’ car on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for refusing to sit in the segregated smoking car (Jim Crow segregation of transportation facilities was just beginning then). She sued the railroad and won $500 in damages; an appeal by the railroad to the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision, however, and she had to pay court costs.

Her interest in journalism began in Memphis, where she participated in a weekly lyceum with other black schoolteachers, reading and discussing the weekly black newspaper The Evening Star, among other things. When she saw how much influence the newspapers had, she began writing a weekly column, which became popular and was printed in many newspapers across the country. She signed her articles “Iola.” The name of the protagonist of fellow African American Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s popular novel Iola Leroy (1892) may have alluded to Wells. In 1889, she purchased a one-third interest in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, resigned her teaching job, and began organizing, writing, and selling subscriptions for the newspaper in black communities and churches throughout the South.

Life’s Work

In 1892, three black men who owned a successful grocery store that competed with the white-owned store in the black neighborhood were lynched in Memphis, Tennessee. Ida B. Wells not only editorialized against the lynching in her newspaper but also counseled black citizens to leave Memphis and move west to Arkansas and the newly opened Oklahoma Territory. Thousands took her advice. Those who remained heeded her call to boycott the streetcar system. In 1892, therefore, Ida B. Wells organized a successful public transportation boycott, sixty years before Rosa Parks began the Montgomery bus boycott after she refused to vacate her seat in the back of the bus to let a white person take it. Thus began Ida B. Wells’s life work—her crusade for justice.

When she left Memphis for a speaking and writing trip to Philadelphia and New York, angry whites destroyed her offices and press and published notices that if she returned she herself would be lynched. She was hired by the important black paper the New York Age to gather lynching statistics and expose the fallacy that black men raped white women. Only one-fourth of all those who were lynched were even accused of sexually accosting or insulting a white woman. Women and children as well as white men were victims of lynch mobs. Most lynchings, she found, were economically motivated, designed to intimidate the black community if it attempted to become financially independent. She used white newspaper accounts to gather her evidence, publishing in 1892 her first feature story (later a pamphlet): “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” She listed all lynchings by name, state, alleged crime, method of killing, and month, continuing this practice in the following years.

Even in the North, her speeches and writings exposing lynch law were not well covered by a frightened white press, and she despaired of making any changes. She knew that international pressure could aid the cause, so she took her antilynching crusade worldwide, traveling to England to 1893 and again in 1894. She was warmly received by...

(The entire section is 1982 words.)