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Ida B. Wells-Barnett
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Ida B. Wells-Barnett
(1862 - 1931)

By The Gale Group – Born July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a former slave who became a journalist and launched a virtual one-woman crusade against the vicious practice of lynching. She died March 25, 1931.

Activist and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an early proponent of civil rights. Editor and partial owner of her own newspaper, she published articles on topics considered controversial at the time. One of her main causes was fighting the practice of lynching, which she regarded as a horrific form of racial prejudice that no decent human being could ignore or justify. For years, the vicious practice of lynching had been widely used — especially in the South after the Civil War — as a means of punishing alleged criminals, although two-thirds of the victims were African American. The word "lynching" dates back to the late 1700s, when a frontier judge named Charles Lynch became known for dispensing with jury trials in favor of speedy hangings. These came to be known as "lynchings," and they later evolved into acts of mob violence in which someone was put to death, usually by hanging. Wells-Barnett waged her war against it in the press as well as on the podium, earning a reputation for fearlessness and determination despite numerous efforts to intimidate her, including death threats.

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery. Her mother, Lizzie Bell, had been bought and sold by a number of owners, while her father, James Wells, had but one master who was also his father and whose last name he took as his own. He was raised as his master's companion and was later apprenticed to a carpenter so that he could learn a trade. It was at the carpenter's home that James met Lizzie, who worked there as a cook, and the two eventually married. Ida, the first of their seven children, arrived during the summer of 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, six months before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

As was true of many former slaves, the Wells retained their old jobs even after the South had been defeated in the Civil War. But their expectations for their children had undergone a major change. It was very important to both parents that their children receive an education. James, for example, served on the first board of trustees for Rust College, a school founded and run by Northern missionaries. His children received their schooling there. Meanwhile, Lizzie also attended classes and learned to read the Bible. Favoring Shakespeare as well as the Scriptures, Ida was well on her way to completing high school when her parents and youngest sibling died along with 301 other residents of Holly Springs in the 1878 yellow-fever epidemic.

Thus, at the age of only sixteen, Ida B. Wells became responsible for her five younger siblings. Convincing the superintendent of a rural school some five miles outside town that she was eighteen, she obtained a position as teacher that paid her $25 a month. During the week, Wells lived near the school and her family stayed with others until she returned on the weekend to attend to chores such as washing and baking. In 1882, she and her two sisters moved to their aunt's home near Memphis, while her brothers remained behind in Holly Springs to work as carpenters' apprentices. Wells taught in Shelby County, Tennessee, while studying for the exams she needed to pass in order to teach in the city. Once she passed those exams, she secured a position in one of Memphis's black schools.

On May 4, 1884, Wells purchased a first-class train ticket for a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, where she was attending classes at Fisk University. When she boarded the train, however, the conductor told her to move back to the smoking car. Wells refused and bit him when he tried to force her from her seat. With the assistance of the baggageman, the conductor then ushered her out of the car to the cheers of many passengers. At the next stop, Wells got off the train and made the return trip to Memphis, where she filed suit against the railway company.

Wells won her case in circuit court and was awarded a $500 settlement, only to see the decision reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court on the grounds that her intention had been to cause difficulty for the railway. As she later wrote of the incident, "[I] firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I [felt] shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged."

Even though Wells was discouraged, she was not about to give up the fight. Before long, the name "Iola" began appearing in black publications as the author of articles about race and politics in the South. Wells had been using the pseudonym for less than a year when, in 1887, she attended the National Afro-American Press Convention and was named the most prominent correspondent for the American black press. Convention delegates also elected her assistant secretary of the organization.

Eventually, Wells purchased partial interest in a black newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight (later renamed Free Speech), and became its editor. In addition to her writing, she continued to teach, using her time off in the summer to travel in the South soliciting subscribers and hiring correspondents.

Wells did not shy away from controversy in the pages of Free Speech. A turning point in her career occurred when she wrote an article that was very critical of Memphis's separate but not-so-equal schools. The anonymous piece described the rundown buildings and teachers who had received little more education than their students. Such revelations did not sit well with members of the local Board of Education. Along with everyone else who had heard of Free Speech, they knew that Wells was the one who had written the article. They also took issue with her claim that a member of the all-white board was having an affair with an African American teacher. The uproar cost Wells her teaching job.

Free to dedicate herself full time to the newspaper, Wells was soon earning enough to purchase a half-share of Free Speech. While her partner, J.L. Fleming, handled business matters, she took charge of the editorial and subscription departments, and under her leadership circulation increased from 1,500 to 4,000. Readers continued to rely on Free Speech to tackle the most controversial subjects, even when that meant speaking out against African Americans as well as whites — and even when it meant challenging a widely-accepted practice such as lynching.

Wells was in Natchez, Mississippi, when word reached her that her friend Tom Moss, the father of her goddaughter, had been lynched. Until that time, Wells, like most other people, knew that there were usually two reasons why a black man was lynched — because he had raped a white woman or killed a white man. Moss's only crime, however, was successfully competing with a white grocer, and for this he and his partners were murdered. Wells then came to the realization that lynchings were not being used to weed out criminals but to enforce white supremacy. So, in a series of scathing editorials in Free Speech, she urged African Americans to boycott Memphis's new streetcar line and move out west if possible.

African Americans heeded Wells's pleas and began leaving Memphis by the hundreds. Two pastors of large black churches took their entire congregations to Oklahoma, and others soon followed. Those who stayed behind boycotted white businesses, creating financial hardships for commercial establishments as well as for the public transportation system. The city's papers attempted to dissuade blacks from leaving by reporting on the hostile American Indians and dangerous diseases awaiting them out west. To counter their claims, Wells spent three weeks traveling in Oklahoma. Upon her return she published a firsthand account of the actual conditions. Fast becoming a target for angry white men and women, she was advised by friends to ease up on her editorials. Instead, Wells decided to carry a pistol. "[I had] already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked," she later recalled. "I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit."

Wells spent two months after the murders of Moss and his partners investigating other lynchings across the South. Traveling from Texas to Virginia, she interviewed both whites and blacks to discern truth from rumor. As Margaret Truman wrote in Women of Courage, "To call this dangerous work is an understatement. Imagine a lone black woman in some small town in Alabama or Mississippi, asking questions that no one wanted to answer about a crime that half the whites in the town had committed." During the course of her investigation, Wells learned that rape was far from being the only crime lodged against victims of lynch mobs. Indeed, men had been lynched for "being saucy." In Mississippi, one victim of a lynch mob was accused of raping a seven-year-old girl. Wells discovered that the real story was that an adult white woman had gone to a black man's cabin of her own accord. The woman's father then led the lynch mob to safeguard his daughter's reputation.

On May 25, 1892, two months after Moss's death, an article appearing in Free Speech stated that "nobody in this section believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women." Many white citizens of Memphis did not appreciate the implication that some of their women might prefer the company of black men, and the editor of the newspaper declared that the "black wretch who had written that foul lie should be tied to a stake at the corner of Main and Madison Streets, a pair of tailor's shears used on him, and he should then be burned at the stake."

Wells, who was on her way to New York City at the time, was unaware of the impact of her latest editorial until reaching her destination. It was fellow African American journalist T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age, who informed her that a mob of white men had marched into the Free Speech offices, demolished the printing press, and set fire to the building. Fleming, Wells's partner, had escaped just before the attack and was in hiding. The angry group had promised that both editors would be lynched if they ever again set foot in Memphis. Over the next few days, Wells received telegrams and letters from friends begging her not to return. They told her that there were instructions to kill her on sight, and a gunman had been spotted at the station whenever a train from the North was due to arrive.

Realizing that it was too dangerous for her to go back to Memphis, Wells remained in New York and accepted a job from Fortune. Among the first stories she wrote for the Age was a front-page spread detailing names, dates, and locations of several dozen lynchings. In many cases, the lynchers were prominent members of society who could have easily gone through proper legal channels had there been evidence of their victims' guilt.

Even though that particular issue of the Age sold 10,000 copies, it reached a predominantly black audience — not the northern white progressives Wells knew she needed to move to action if she wanted the lynchings to stop. In 1893, therefore, she set out on a speaking tour of the British Isles and Europe, where she found the white community was more receptive to what she had to say. With the help of various newspaper editors and organizations such as the London-based Anti-Lynching Committee and the Society of Brotherhood of Man, Wells's message eventually made its way back to the United States. Nevertheless, American newspapers continued to attack Wells, referring to her as the "slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress." Not only did Wells face opposition from conservative whites, but she also came under fire from upper-class African Americans who feared any threat to the security of their positions.

After returning from her speaking tour later in 1893, Wells moved to Chicago and began working for the Conservator, a black newspaper founded and edited by lawyer Ferdinand Barnett. When African Americans were banned from participating in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (held in Chicago), she teamed up with Barnett and Frederick Douglass to compile a booklet entitled "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not Represented in the World's Columbian Exposition." Some 10,000 copies of it were distributed during the fair. That same year, Wells published A Red Record, which recounted three years of American lynchings. In order to avoid any charges of bias, she gathered all of her data from white sources, primarily the Chicago Tribune.

In 1895, Wells married Barnett, who shared her passion for civil rights. They settled in Chicago, where Wells changed her name to Wells-Barnett and divided her time between raising her four children and working on various causes of interest to her. She continued to crusade against lynching, for example, and was active in the women's club movement, which encouraged African American women to become involved in civic affairs at the local and national level. She also helped establish the first kindergarten in the black district of Chicago and joined noted reformer Jane Addams in a successful protest against a plan to segregate the city's schools.

Wells-Barnett spoke out against discrimination in other ways as well, denouncing the restriction of African Americans to the backs of buses and theater balconies and their exclusion from religious organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union. When she exposed the segregationist policies of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), several wealthy donors withdrew their support from that group and gave nearly $9,000 to the establishment of the Negro Fellowship Reading Room and Social Center. On two occasions, Wells-Barnett went all the way to the White House with her concerns — once in 1898 when she led a delegation to President William McKinley to protest the lynching of an African American postmaster, and again in 1913 as a representative of the National Equal Rights League, which asked President Woodrow Wilson to end discrimination in government jobs.

In 1909, Wells-Barnett attended the conference of radical activists that led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She resigned not long afterwards, however, convinced that the organization was not committed enough to militant action. Some years earlier, she had quit the Afro-American Council in protest against Booker T. Washington and his conservative policy of accommodation.

In the last twenty or so years of her life, Wells-Barnett devoted most of her time and energy to various civic and political activities in Chicago. From 1913 until 1916, for instance, she worked as an adult probation officer. She also remained busy with club work and founded the first African American women's suffrage organization. She even ran for state senator in the 1930 elections but was easily defeated.

Had Wells-Barnett been able to see the future, she might have been able to appreciate how much she influenced the civil rights movement of the 1960s with her own fearless battles against discrimination decades earlier. But she herself would not live to witness a new era of race relations. On March 25, 1931, Wells-Barnett died of kidney disease at the age of sixty-nine. Today, she is still honored as a woman who risked her own life so that the truth could be known and justice served.

Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.

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