(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.