Ida B. Wells was a complex woman, and Ida, A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings is a complex book that captures the full scope of her challenging and impressive life. It spanned from the Civil War into the “nadir” years of post-Reconstruction racial segregation, through the Progressive Era and World War I, and on to the beginning of the Great Depression.
Wells was raised in the South. In the 1890’s, when her newspaper office was destroyed and she received threats upon her life because of her determined political outspokenness on racial violence issues, she went into exile in the North. She spent the majority of her adulthood working and traveling for social-justice causes. In the last three decades of her life, she was based in Chicago, where she raised her family and became deeply involved in local social welfare and community politics as well as in more sweeping national reforms.
Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the eldest daughter of former slaves who were ardent believers in education and work as means of uplift for African Americans. Her parents were early supporters of the Freedman’s Aid Society’s Shaw University (later Rust College), which Wells attended. Wells’s happy family life was destroyed in 1878, when a yellow fever epidemic claimed the lives of both her parents. Orphaned at age sixteen, Wells set out on her own, with varying success, to supply financial support for her younger siblings and herself. Well-read and a lover of literature, she turned to the highly respectable profession of teaching, and she soon took up residence in Memphis, Tennessee. There she honed her oratorical and debating skills as a member of the Memphis Lyceum. As Giddings demonstrates, this was preparation for a lifetime of public speaking to come.
Giddings re-creates the social milieu of Memphis of the 1880’s and the class, gender, and racial contradictions that faced a forthright young black woman such as Wells in a city where Jim Crow restrictions were taking hold. Wells would test those strictures with a lawsuit in 1883-1884, when she was discriminated against on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and she resisted moving to a segregated car. Teaching school, meanwhile, proved to be just the first of her professions. Gifted as a writer, she began to earn a name in freelance journalism. She wrote regular columns under the pen name “Iola,” and in 1889, in association with the minister Taylor Nightingale and editor J. L. Fleming, became one-third owner and editor-in-chief of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. In doing so, Wells joined the ranks of other influential black male and female journalists working nationwide, and she began to travel extensively to promote the newspaper.
The violent murder of Wells’s friendgrocer and postman Thomas Mossby a white mob in 1892 was a turning point in her career, as well as in the lives of many of the African American residents of Memphis. In a pivotal editorial written after Moss’s murder, Wells observed “that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival.” She then urged the black citizens of Memphis to observe Moss’s dying words and leave the city, because no justice could be found for them there. Thousands responded, and they made their way to the Oklahoma Territory.
In a more pronounced way, the death of Moss launched Wells on an incredible arc as the nation’s leading voice of protest against lynching. Her campaign to dispel myths and educate the public as to the true causes and intents of lynching took form through her editorials and later pamphlets. In the 1890’s it would lead her from Memphis to New York and on to tours of Great Britain as an antilynching lecturer. Forced from the South, she worked for the New York Age, and in 1892 she produced her classic feature story based on her lynching investigations, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” She was well received in Great Britain in 1892 and 1894, where, speaking before British audiences, she urged that international political pressure be exerted on the United States for an end to atrocities. Back in the United States, she joined with...
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