A Warrior Woman for All Ages
he life of Ida B. Wells covers several epochs of the African American saga (1862-1931). 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 Bell Wells was born a slave on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, to James and Elizabeth "Lizzie" Bell (Warrenton) Wells, the daughter of a Native American father and slave mother. After emancipation, Lizzie and James continued to work for their former owner as a cook and carpenter respectively. The oldest in a family of four boys and four girls, Ida 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 seventeen, 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 early 1880s, she moved to Memphis and taught in the rural schools of Shelby County while preparing for the teachers' exam for the Negro public schools of Memphis. After passing the exam, she taught in Woodstock, Tennessee, outside Memphis. In May of 1884, Ida 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, she was ejected from the train. David Levering Lewis reports in his Pulitzer Prize Winning W.E.B. DuBois, Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1993) 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" (p. 244). She subsequently filed suit against the railroad company. Her resistance to segregated public transportation in the South occurred some 70 years before Rosa Parks' heroic refusal in Montgomery, Alabama. In December of 1884, the Memphis circuit court ruled in her favor and awarded her $500 in damages. On April 5,1887, Ida B. Wells, now considered a firebrand, lost her suit when the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision "on the grounds that her persistence was not in good faith" and that the railroad had provided her "like accommodations."
Ida B. Wells taught in the Memphis city schools from 1884 until 1891. Her 1891 editorials critical of the Memphis Board of Education and its unequal distribution of the resources allotted to the segregated African American schools led to her dismissal as a teacher. Using the story of her suit against the railroad and its outcome, Ida 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 (later shortened to Free Speech), a militant journal that served as a voice of the African American community.
In response to the lynching of an African American in 1891 in Georgetown, Kentucky, Ida B. Wells condoned those Africans who avenged his death by setting fire to the town, stating: "Not until the Negro rises in his might and takes a hand in resenting such cold-blooded murders, if he has to burn up whole towns, will a halt be called to wholesale lynching." On March 9, 1891, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart, three young African American proprietors of the People'sGrocery Store. This caused Ida to declare journalistic war on lynching. In an editorial she wrote, Blacks must leave Memphis "which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trail in the courts, but take us out and murder us in cold blood when accused by a white person." African Americans heeded her call to leave the city and left in droves. Because of her prickly penned editorials about the issue of lynching, she was banished from Memphis, Tennessee. Before her exile from the city and subsequently from the South in general, Ida B. Wells persisted in her struggle against racial injustice and lynching as a columnist for the New York Age and a number of other news weeklies and periodicals. Her A Red Record was published in 1895. In addition to investigating and reporting on the execution of African Americans without due process of law, she lectured on the subject and made her findings known throughout the American West, Midwest and Northeast, England, Scotland, and Wales. She is reputed to have walked through the streets of Memphis armed 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 Chicago's 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). Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the only African woman among the founders was initially omitted from the "Committee of Forty" which constituted the interim governing body of the NAACP. [DuBois probably omitted her] from the original list of Forty because "Wells-Barnett was a woman of unrestrained outspokenness who seldom acknowledged the gender etiquette of her day when fighting for a cause. She may have presumed on DuBois's large ego. The affront to Mrs. Wells-Barnett was exceedingly costly because it figured in her decision . . . to withdraw from the work of the NAACP" (see David Levering Lewis, W.E.B DuBois, Biography of a Race 1868-1919, p. 396.) She later regretted her action. During the years that followed 1916, she also spoke out in support of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Ida congratulated Garvey for unifying African Americans and for restoring their pride in their race and in Africa. She knew how important it was for a people to be proud of their heritage, but saw no reason that this should interfere with the ability of people of different races, backgrounds, and nations, from working together for the common good.
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.
From the Pen of Ida B. Wells-Barnett:
Ida B. Wells-Barnett Web Links:
These sites offer a variety of different types of information — biographies, photographs, and reproductions of primary documents written by Wells.
Go to the Ida B. Wells Community Academy's Educational Overview at http://hierographics.org/AcademyIndex.shtml. This Webpage was developed for the Ida B. Wells Community Academy by HieroGraphics Online and is a revised version of a currently inactive webpage: http://picard.tnstate.edu/~library/digital/wells.htm.
For More Information, Write or Call:
The Ida B. Wells Community Academy
ATTN: Mrs. Angela M. Neeley, 1180 Slosson Street
Akron, Ohio 44320-2730
Phone: 330.867.1085 FAX: 330.867.1074
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Updated on January 1, 2004