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Portrait Highlight - Ida B Wells American journalist, educator and civil rights leader

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (1862 – 1931) American investigative journalist, educator, & an early leader in the civil rights movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Bolling Farm, near Holly Springs, Mississippi

Ida was born into slavery on the Bolling Farm near Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. Her father, James Madison Wells (1840–1878), was the son of a White man and an enslaved Black woman called Peggy. James had been brought to Holly Springs at the age of 18 by his father to become an apprentice in a carpenter’s workshop where he developed a skill and worked as a "hired out slave living in town”. Ida’s mother Elizabeth "Lizzie" (Warrenton), had been one of ten children born to enslaved people living on a plantation in Virginia. She had been sold away from her family and siblings and though she tried to find them after the Civil War, it was without success. Before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Wells' parents were enslaved to Spires Boling, an architect, and the family lived in the structure now called Bolling–Gatewood House, which has become the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum.


After emancipation, James became a trustee of the liberal arts college, Shaw College (now Rust College), where Ida would become a student. He refused to vote for Democratic candidates during the period of Reconstruction, became a member of the Loyal League, and was known as a "race man" for his involvement in politics and his commitment to the Republican Party. He founded a successful carpentry business in Holly Springs in 1867, and Lizzie became known as a "famous cook”. However, they (and one of Ida’s siblings) both sadly died in the autumn of 1878 when yellow fever ran rampant through the town. Ida was away visiting her grandmother's farm near at the time and was spared. To keep her younger siblings together as a family, Ida found work as a teacher in a Black elementary school and their grandmother, Peggy Wells (née Peggy Cheers; 1814–1887), along with other friends and relatives, helped take care of her siblings whilst she was at work. In 1883, after Grandmother Peggy suffered a stroke and her sister Eugenia died, Ida and her two youngest sisters moved to Memphis to live with their aunt, Fanny Butler (née Fanny Wells; 1837–1908). Ida continued to work as a teacher and during her summer vacations attended summer sessions at both Lemoyne-Owen College, Memphis and Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee. She held strong political opinions and provoked many people with her views on women's rights.

In 1883 the Supreme Court ruled against the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 and in doing so lifted the ban on racial discrimination in public accommodations, actively supporting companies who chose to racially segregate their customers and passengers. During the spring of 1884, Ida was ordered by a train conductor to give up her sear in the first-class ladies car and move to the, already over-crowded, smoking car. When she refused she was forcibly removed from the railcar. In response, Ida wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a Black church weekly, about her treatment on the train which gained her quite a bit of publicity in Memphis and she went on to hire an African-American attorney to sue the railroad. When this lawyer was paid off by the railroad, she hired a White attorney. She won her case the day before Christmas 1884, and was granted $500 by the local circuit court. However, the court’s ruling was overturned three years later when the railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling in 1887 and Ida was ordered to pay court costs. "I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people. ... O God, is there no ... justice in this land for us?"

Beale Street Baptist Church

Though she continued teaching, Ida became increasingly active as a journalist and writer. She took on an editorial position for the Evening Star in Washington, D.C., and she began writing weekly articles for The Living Way newspaper under the pen name "Iola". Articles she wrote under her pen name attacked racist Jim Crow policies. In 1889, she became editor and co-owner with J. L. Fleming of The Free Speech and Headlight, a Black-owned newspaper established by the Reverend Taylor Nightingale (1844–1922) and based at the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis. Her journalistic endeavours finally led to her dismissal from teaching in 1891 when she published articles criticising conditions in the Black schools of the region. She now concentrated her energy on writing articles for The Living Way and the Free Speech and Headlight.

Ida's anti-lynching commentaries in the Free Speech had already been building, particularly with respect to lynchings and imprisonment of Black men suspected of raping White women, when on May 21st, 1892, she published an editorial refuting what she called "that old threadbare lie that Negro men rape White women. If Southern men are not careful, a conclusion might be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” Four days later, The Daily Commercial published a threat: "The fact that a Black scoundrel [Ida B. Wells] is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern Whites. But we've had enough of it." The Evening Scimitar copied the story that same day, but raised the threat: "Patience under such circumstances is not a virtue. If the Negroes themselves do not apply the remedy without delay it will be the duty of those whom he has attacked to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison Sts., brand him in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor's shears."

The Free Speech office was subsequently ransacked by a White mob, destroying the building and its contents. Ida was on holiday in New York at the time, but James L. Fleming, Ida’s co-owner, was forced to flee Memphis; and the trains were reportedly being watched for Ida's return. Creditors took possession of the office and sold the assets. Ida never returned to Memphis. A "committee" of White businessmen, reportedly from the Cotton Exchange, located Rev. Nightingale and, although he'd sold his interest to Ida and Fleming in 1891, assaulted him and forced him at gunpoint to sign a letter retracting the May 21st editorial.

Southern Horrors, by Ida B Wells

Ida remained in New York and continued her anti-lynching campaign whilst working at New York Age. In the October of 1892, she began to publish her research on lynching in a pamphlet entitled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Having examined many accounts of lynchings due to the alleged "rape of White women", she concluded that Southerners cried rape as an excuse to hide their real reasons for lynchings: Black economic progress, which threatened White Southerners with competition, and White ideas of enforcing Black second-class status in the society. Black economic progress was a contemporary issue in the South, and in many states Whites worked to suppress Black progress. In this period at the turn of the century, Southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed laws and/or new constitutions to disenfranchise most Black people and many poor White people through use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other devices. Ida explained that the defence of White women's honour allowed Southern White men to get away with murder by projecting their own history of sexual violence onto Black men. Her call for all races and genders to be accountable for their actions showed African-American women that they can speak out and fight for their rights. By portraying the horrors of lynching, she worked to show that racial and gender discrimination are linked, furthering the Black feminist cause.

Frederick Douglass

In response to her published works, Frederick Douglass, the American abolitionist and social reformer, wrote:“Dear Miss Wells, Thanks you for your faithful paper on the Lynch abomination now generally practised against coloured people in the South. There has been no word equal to it in convincing power. I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison … Brave woman! …”

Ida followed up Southern Horrors with The Red Record, in 1895, a 100-page pamphlet with more detail, describing lynching in the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It also covered Black people’s struggles in the South since the Civil War. The two pamphlet’s documentation of lynchings captured the attention of Northerners who knew little about lynching or accepted the common explanation that Black men deserved this fate. However, despite her attempts to garner support among White Americans against lynching, she believed that her campaign could not overturn the economic interests Whites had in using lynching as an instrument to maintain Southern order and discourage Black economic ventures and concluded that perhaps armed resistance was the only defence. Meanwhile, she extended her efforts to gain support of such powerful White nations as Britain to shame and sanction the racist practices of America.

In 1893 Ida travelled to Britain (the first of two visits in her campaign against lynching). She was invited on a speaking tour by Catherine Impey and Isabella Fyvie Mayo, the former of whom was a Quaker abolitionist who had published the journal Anti-Caste and had attended many of Ida’s lectures in America.

Isabella Fyvie Mayo and Catherine Impey

Whilst in Britain, Ida toured England, Scotland and Wales for two months, addressing audiences of thousands, already shocked by reports of lynching in America, and whom she found sympathetic to the cause. The following year, before leaving the US for her second visit to Britain, Ida called on William Penn Nixon, the editor of the Daily Inter Ocean, a Republican newspaper in Chicago. It was the only major White paper that persistently denounced lynching. After she told Nixon about her planned tour, he asked her to write for the newspaper while in England. She was the first African-American woman to be a paid correspondent for a mainstream White newspaper. On the last night of her second tour, the London Anti-Lynching Committee was established – reportedly the first anti-lynching organisation in the world. As a result of her two lecture tours in Britain, she received significant coverage in the British and American press. Many of the articles published at the time of her return to the United States were hostile personal critiques, rather than reports of her anti-lynching positions and beliefs. The New York Times, for example, called her "a slanderous and nasty-nasty-minded Mulatress". Despite these attacks in the White press, Wells had nevertheless gained extensive recognition and credibility, and an international audience of White supporters of her cause.

In 1893, she organised The Women's Era Club, a first-of-its-kind civic club for African-American women in Chicago. It would later be renamed the Ida B. Wells Club in her honour. In 1896, Ida took part in the meeting in Washington, D.C., that founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. After her death, the Ida B. Wells Club went on to do many things. The club advocated to have a housing project in Chicago named after the founder, Ida B. Wells, and succeeded, making history in 1939 as the first housing project named after a woman of colour. She also helped organise the National Afro-American Council, serving as the organisation's first secretary, and received much support from other social activists and her fellow club women. Frederick Douglass praised her work: "You have done your people and mine a service. ...What a revelation of existing conditions your writing has been for me."

A group of Black suffragists, c. 1915

In June 1895, Ida married attorney, civil rights activist and journalist, Ferdinand L. Barnett, a widower with two sons, whom she had met whilst working on a pamphlet protesting the lack of Black representation at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Like Ida, he spoke widely against lynchings and for the civil rights of African Americans and had founded The Chicago Conservator in 1878, the first Black newspaper in Chicago. Ida began writing for the paper in 1893, later acquired a partial ownership interest, and after marrying Ferdinand, assumed the role of editor. Their marriage was not only a legal union, but a partnership of ideas and actions. In an interview, their daughter Alfreda said that the two had "like interests" and that their journalist careers were "intertwined".

Ferdinand L Barnett

This sort of close working relationship between a wife and husband was unusual at the time, as women often played more traditional domestic roles in a marriage. Like any working mother, Ida experienced the difficult challenge of splitting her time between family and work which she described in a chapter of her posthumous autobiography, Crusade For Justice, titled "A Divided Duty”. Her establishment of Chicago's first kindergarten prioritising Black children, located in the lecture room of the Bethel AME Church, demonstrates how her public activism and her personal life were connected; as her great-granddaughter Michelle Duster notes: "When her older children started getting of school age, then she recognized that black children did not have the same kind of educational opportunities as some other students .... And so, her attitude was, 'Well since it doesn't exist, we'll create it ourselves.'"

When Frederick Douglas, one of her greatest supporters, died in 1895, Ida was perhaps at the height of her notoriety; she was still campaigning against lynching and for African American civil rights, but was also active in the national women’s club movement and had become a spokeswoman and an advocate for women being successful in the workplace, having  equal opportunities, and creating a name for themselves. It was also around this time that she ran for the Illinois State Senate. However, many men and women were ambivalent or against a woman taking the lead in Black civil rights at a time when women were not seen as, and often not allowed to be, leaders by the wider society. For the new leading voices, Booker T. Washington, his rival, W. E. B. Du Bois, and more traditionally minded women activists, Ida was often seen as too radical and was deliberately overlooked when it came to positions of leadership. This was evident when in 1899 the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs intended to meet in Chicago. Writing to the president of the association, Mary Terrell, Chicago organisers of the event stated that they would not cooperate in the meeting if it included Ida. When Ida learned that Terrell had agreed to exclude her, she called it "a staggering blow”.

Booker T Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary Church Terrell
Frances Willard

Ida’s role in the U.S. suffrage movement was inextricably linked to her lifelong crusade against racism, violence and discrimination towards African Americans. Her view of women's enfranchisement was pragmatic and political. Like all suffragists she believed in women's right to vote, but she also saw enfranchisement as a way for Black women to become politically involved in their communities and to use their votes to elect African Americans, regardless of gender, to influential political office. As a prominent Black suffragist, Wells held strong positions against racism, violence and lynching that brought her into conflict with leaders of largely White suffrage organisations, the most notable example of which was the conflict between her and Frances Willard, the first President of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

Virginia Brooks

Ida focused her work on Black women's suffrage in Chicago following the enactment of a new state law in 1913 enabling partial women's suffrage. It gave women in the state the right to vote for presidential electors, mayor, aldermen and most other local offices; but not for governor, state representatives or members of Congress. Illinois was the first state east of the Mississippi to give women these voting rights. The prospect of passing the act was the impetus for Ida and her White colleague Belle Squire to found the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago in 1913 as a way to further voting rights for all women, to teach Black women how to engage in civic matters, and to work to elect African Americans to city offices. As they were organising the Alpha Club, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was organising a suffrage parade in Washington D.C. for the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. The march would see suffragists from across the country gathering to demand universal suffrage. Ida attended with a delegation of members from Chicago, but on the day of the march, was told by the head of the Illinois delegation that the NAWSA wanted "to keep the delegation entirely White", and all African-American suffragists, including Ida, were to walk at the end of the parade in a "colored delegation". That wasn’t Ida’s style though and instead of going to the back she waited with the spectators as the parade got underway, and then purposefully stepped into the White Illinois delegation as they passed by. She visibly linked arms with her White suffragist colleagues, Squire and Virginia Brooks, for the rest of the parade, demonstrating, according to The Chicago Defender, the universality of the women's civil rights movement.

With the rise of mid-20th-century civil rights activism, and the 1971 posthumous publication of her autobiography, interest in Ida’s life and legacy has grown. Many awards have been established in her name and The Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation and the Ida B. Wells Museum have also been established to protect, preserve and promote her legacy. In her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, there is an Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in her honour that acts as a cultural centre of African-American history. In 1988, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and in August that same year, she was also inducted into the Chicago Women's Hall of Fame.

Mary E Flowers

In 2012, Mary E. Flowers, a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, introduced House Resolution 770 during the 97th General Assembly, honouring Ida B. Wells by declaring March 25th, 2012 – the eighty-ninth anniversary of her death – as Ida B. Wells Day in the State of Illinois. In 2016, the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting was launched in Memphis, Tennessee, with the purpose of promoting investigative journalism. Following in the footsteps of Wells, this society encourages minority journalists to expose injustices perpetuated by the government and defend people who are susceptible to being taken advantage of.

On March 8th, 2018, The New York Times published a belated obituary for her, in a series marking International Women's Day and entitled Overlooked that set out to acknowledge that, since 1851, its obituary pages had been dominated by White men, while notable women – including Wells – had been ignored. In 2019, a blue plaque, provided by the Nubian Jak Community Trust, was unveiled by the mayor of Birmingham, Yvonne Mosquito, at the Edgbaston Community Centre, Birmingham, England, commemorating Wells' stay in a house on the exact site of 66 Gough Road where she stayed in 1893 during her speaking tour of the British Isles.

On May 4th, 2020, she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize special citation, "[f]or her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” And in 2021, Chicago erected a monument to Wells in the Bronzeville neighborhood, near where she lived and on the site of the former Ida B. Wells Homes housing project.


Ida B Wells, pen on paper (2020)


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