Ida B. Wells-Barnett

ida_b__wellsI don’t know about you, but there are days I get very discouraged.  People are rude, everything I do fails and nothing goes my way.  Then I read about people like Ida B. Wells, and I realize I need to suck it up.  My life is pretty easy in comparison.  This woman is the epitome of rising on your own steam and is a true badass.

Born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Ida B. Wells was the daughter of two slaves- James and Lizzie Wells.  This made her a slave too.  Luckily when she was six months old, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln, which made young Ida and her family free.  However, they were still living in the Civil War south so they weren’t out of the woods yet.  Money was tight in the family as there were seven Wells children, but their mother Lizzie had some fame as a cook and their father was a talented carpenter so they were able to support the family.  Once the war was over, Ida’s parents became active in the newly formed Republican party.  Her father became a trustee of Shaw University,  a school for newly freed slaves, where Ida eventually received her education.

Tragedy hit when an epidemic of yellow fever swept through the area when Ida was only fourteen.  Sadly both her parents and her youngest sibling died of the disease, leaving Ida to provide for the family.  Ida convinced the superintendent of a nearby school she was eighteen and secured a job as a teacher.  This continued until 1882, when the family moved in with an aunt in Memphis Tennessee.  Living in Memphis, she traveled to Nashville to attend Fisk University.  It was on one of these trips between Memphis and Nashville that a fateful confrontation took place.  Ida purchased a first class ticket and was riding in the “ladies’ car”.  A conductor asked her leave and go to the “Jim Crow” car to make room for a white passenger.  The “Jim Crow” car did not have first class accommodations as you can well imagine.  Ida refused.  The conductor tried to remove her by force, taking her by the arm.  Ida was not having it, and bit the conductor on the back of the hand and held onto the seat back in front of her.  She wrote in her autobiography,

“I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”

She filed suit against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company and won a $500 settlement in a circuit court case.  This decision was eventually overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Remember that the law of the land at this time was 1875 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination on the basis of race creed or color in public accommodations.  This was widely ignored.  It did not come before the Supreme Court until Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which established the “separate but equal” doctrine.  Anyone looking at pictures of the “colored” accommodations and facilities can attest these were anything but equal.  However, I digress.  This only fueled Ida’s fire against injustice, and she began writing about issues of race and politics in the south under the pseudonym “Iola”.  Her work challenging “Jim Crow” laws were widely published in black newspapers and magazines.  Eventually, she purchased a managing share of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a Memphis newspaper.  

In 1892, Ida unfortunately had more to write about.  Three of her friends owned the People’s Grocery in Memphis.  Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss and Henry Stewart were making a successful go of their business, and were out performing the grocery store across the street.  This did not sit well with the white owners of said store, and they set out to do something about it.  On March 9, 1892, a group of white men confronted McDowell, Moss and Stewart and a scuffle ensued.  Some white men were injured, so the three black men were arrested.  A mob broke into the jail and lynched the three men.  Ida wasn’t going to have it.  She was angry at the murder of her friends for the crime of being black and successful with good reason.  Using her powerful voice as a journalist, she wrote editorials on this injustice.  

“The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.”

Ida investigated this lynching as well as others across the south.  She put herself in danger countless times gathering information about these murders and published her findings in the pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases”.  She went on to make several lectures on the subject and publish a book in 1895 called A Red Record.  These detailed the anatomy of a lynching and countered the popular “rape myth” used by many mobs to justify the murder of black men.  She had found that many “rapes” were consensual relationships between white women and black men or just a product of pure fiction.  The proponents of Jim Crow took notice and burned her newspaper to the ground.  Ida was on a trip to New York, but was warned not to return to Memphis as she would be killed.  So Ida took her show on the road.  She traveled to England and established the British Anti-Lynching Society in 1894.  Finally returning home to the US to settle in Chicago.  There she met the man who was to become her husband.  He was Ferdinand L. Barnett, a lawyer and newspaper editor.  Ferdinand was apparently her match as he was a fellow feminist and supported his wife’s causes.  Their wedding made the New York Times.  Together the couple had four children.

Ida’s work was far from over, and marriage did not slow her down.  She protested the exclusion of black exhibitors  from the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in her new hometown of Chicago.  Out of this came the pamphlet “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Represented in the World’s Colombian Exposition”, which brought her the acclaim of Frederick Douglass. (For more on Frederick Douglass, please see this post http://www.historynaked.com/frederick-douglass/ ) That same year she helped launch the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).  After a series of terrible assaults on the black community in Springfield Illinois in 1908, Wells was one of the leaders who called for the creation of a national organization.  She was one of two black women who joined with W.E.B. DuBois and other organizers to sign “the call”.  Out of this, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was created.  Ida later cut ties with the organization as she disagreed with the strategies of Booker T. Washington.  She was considered one of the most radical of the radicals.

Ida was also active in the cause of women’s suffrage and marched in the 1913 Women’s March on Washington (http://www.historynaked.com/first-womens-march-washington/ ), causing a kerfuffle because she would not be segregated in the parade.  Haven’t these people learned yet?  Ida didn’t march in the back.  She led.  She continued leading by becoming one of the first black women to run for public office.  In 1930, she ran for the Illinois State legislature, but was defeated.  A year later in 1931, Ida died of kidney disease at the age of 68.  She left behind a legacy of work and words to inspire future generations.  She said, “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”  This woman was wise.  Keep fighting the good fight, brothers and sisters.

ER