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
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
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.
had four children: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda. In 1899, she published
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.
B. Wells Links:
These sites offer
a variety of different types of information — biographies, photographs,
and reproductions of primary documents written by Wells.
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
law in Georgia in the American Memory Collection of the National Digital
Ida B. Wells, A Passion for Justice: A brief biography of Wells
with several further study questions and other relevant links.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Crossing Boundaries, Making Connections: A
brief Wells biogra- phy with her writings Lynch Law in Georgia
and "A Letter To the Members of the Anti-Lynching Bureau" (1902) and Lynch
Law in America (1909) .
IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT (1862-1931) in a Profile of African Americans
in Tennessee History: A brief biography of Wells with an image.
A quote from Ida B. Wells, on Lynching, 1909 with an image.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Co-founder of the NAACP: A brief biography