Ida B. Wells-Barnett
(1862-1931)



he life of Ida B. Wells covers several epochs of the African American saga. Born six months before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and reared during Reconstruction, she came of age during the post-Reconstruction period and spent her adult life fighting to redress the inequities brought about by Jim Crow. One of the first African American women to serve as an investigative reporter, Wells began her fight at the age of twenty-two when she brought legal action against the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railroad Company. Through written and spoken communication she made known the stark atrocities of lynching in America and conveyed her struggles against all the acts of inhumanity to the African American in her travels abroad. 
        Ida Wells was born a slave on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, to James and Elizabeth (Warrenton) Wells. The oldest in a family of four boys and four girls, she acquired from her parents a love of liberty and self-sufficiency that characterized her life. She attended Shaw University (later Rust College) in Holly Springs, and, after her move to Memphis, Tennessee, she attended summer sessions at Nashville's Fisk University. 
        The yellow fever epidemic of 1878 claimed the lives of Ida's parents and youngest brother. Following their deaths, Ida, at the age of sixteen, assumed the responsibility of rearing her siblings. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, she took and passed the Mississippi teachers' exam and taught briefly in Holly Springs. 
        In the 1880s, Wells moved to Memphis. While preparing for the teachers' exam for the Negro Public schools of Memphis, she taught in Woodstock, Tennessee, outside Memphis. In May of 1884, Wells purchased a first-class ticket on a local Memphis-to-Woodstock line. Taking a seat in the white ladies' coach and refusing to move to the segregated "smoker" car when so instructed by the conductor, Wells was ejected from the train. David Levering Lewis reports in his Pulitzer Prize Winning W.E.B. DuBois, Biography of a Race that her ejection occurred when she was "hauled by a pack of bullying white men from the train with the conductor's flesh between her teeth." She subsequently filed suit against the railroad company. In December of 1884, the Memphis circuit court ruled in her favor and awarded her damages. On December 5, 1885, Wells lost her suit when the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision. 
        Ida B. Wells taught in the Memphis city schools from 1884 to 91. Using the story of her suit against the railroad and its outcome, Wells contributed to The Living Way, a religious weekly, under the pseudonym, "Iola." She also wrote regularly for the African American press throughout the country. Elected secretary of the Afro-American Press Association in 1889, Wells became known as the "Princess of the Press." During this same year, she became editor of and partner in the Free Speech and Headlight, a militant journal that served as a voice of the African American community. Wells's 1891 editorials critical of the Memphis Board of Education and its unequal distribution of the resources allotted to the segregated Negro schools led to her dismissal as a teacher. 
        The lynching of three young African American proprietors of the People's Grocery Store, on March 9, 1891, caused Wells to declare journalistic war on lynching. Because of her prickly penned editorials about the issue of lynching, she was banished from Memphis. Exiled from the South, Wells persisted in her struggle against racial injustice and lynching as a columnist for the New York Age. Her A Red Terror was published in 1895. In addition to investigating and reporting on the execution of blacks without due process of law, she lectured on the subject and made her findings known throughout the Northeast, England, Scotland, and Wales. She is reputed to have walked the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, with two guns holstered about her waist as she organized African Americans to oppose lynching.
        Three years after she was expelled from Memphis, on June 27, 1895, Ida B. Wells married attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett, editor and founder of the Chicago Conservator. They had four children: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda. In 1899, she published Lynch Law in Georgia,* an account of six weeks of bloody horror and death.
        In 1908, Ida B. Wells Barnett becomes the first president of the Negro Fellowship League. She is also one of eleven prominent Tennesseans depicted in the official Tennessee bicentennial portrait and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). On March 25, 1931, in Chicago, at the age of 68, the ever-vocal "crusader for justice" was forever silenced. See Alfreda M. Duster's Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1970) for an extensive account of her courageous life. 
 

Ida B. Wells Links:

These sites offer a variety of different types of information biographies, photographs, and reproductions of primary documents written by Wells.

*http://www.duke.edu/~ldbaker/classes/AAIH/caaih/ibwells/ibwbkgrd.html
Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Passion for Justice: A brief biography of Wells with a bibliography for further study and a link to Ida B. Wells-Barnett's Lynch law in Georgia in the American Memory Collection of the National Digital Library. 

http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/wells.html
Ida B. Wells, A Passion for Justice: A brief biography of Wells with several further study questions and other relevant links. 

http://kuhttp.cc.ukans.edu/kansas/crossingboundaries/pagex6d1.html
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Crossing Boundaries, Making Connections: A brief  Wells biogra- phy with her writings Lynch Law in Georgia (1899), and "A Letter To the Members of the Anti-Lynching Bureau" (1902) and Lynch Law in America (1909)

http://picard.tnstate.edu/~library/digital/wells.htm
IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT (1862-1931) in a Profile of African Americans in Tennessee History: A brief biography of Wells with an image. 

http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/seminar/unit9/wellsquote.html
A quote from Ida B. Wells, on Lynching, 1909 with an image. 

http://library.advanced.org/10320/Wells.htm
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Co-founder of the NAACP: A brief biography of Wells. 
 

A revised version of the Ida B. Wells Web Site at http://picard.tnstate.edu/~library/digital/wells.htm. Created for the Ida B. Wells Community Academy by HieroGraphics Online.