Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a prolific author whose work covered a wide range of subjects: civil rights, suffrage, social justice, feminism, race riots, social settlements, women’s organizations, travel, and voluntary associations. Many of these works were published in newspapers, pamphlets, and journals.
From 1889 to 1892 she was the editor of a newspaper, Free Speech, in Memphis, Tennessee. When she wrote an editorial criticizing a white mob who lynched three men who were her friends, her newspaper was destroyed and she had to flee for her life. She continued to protest against lynching the rest of her life. She documented the horrors of lynching in a series of writings, especially in pamphlets, and three of these pamphlets were reprinted in the book On Lynchings.
Wells-Barnett witnessed injustice toward African Americans in a wide range of other settings and institutions, for example, in employment, housing, voting, and politics. Many of her writings on these subjects were published in African American newspapers that have been lost, so the full range of her thought remains to be documented. She was active in founding many civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Equal Rights League, and the Negro Fellowship League. Two important allies on numerous issues were Frederick Douglass and Jane Addams. Wells-Barnett opposed the gradual approach to changing race relations advocated by Booker T. Washington, and this stand was courageous during the height of Washington’s influence.
Wells-Barnett was a leader in women’s clubs, although she fought with many white and African American women about the pace and direction of their protests. She was active for several years in the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and founded the Ida B. Wells Clubs and the Alpha Suffrage Club, among others.
Although Wells-Barnett was born into slavery, she conquered racism, sexism, and poverty to become an articulate and forceful leader. Her autobiography documents not only these public struggles but also her personal decisions to help rear her orphaned siblings, marry, and rear five children.