Ida B. Wells was born a slave in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her father, James, was a carpenter and her mother, Elizabeth, was a famous cook. Both parents were literate and taught Ida how to read at a young age. She was surrounded by political activists and grew up during Reconstruction with a sense of hope about the possibilities of former slaves within the American society. Both parents died, along with an infant brother, during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic when Ida was 16 years old. At that young age, she assumed the responsibility of rearing her five younger brothers and sisters.
She soon became a teacher in order to earn money for the family and eventually ended up working in Memphis. While there, one day changed her life forever. She was accustomed to riding the train in whatever seat she chose. In 1884, she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad because they forbade her from sitting in the ladies coach. She subsequently wrote an article about the experience. The success of her article about the case influenced her career change from teacher to journalist.
As injustices against former slaves raged throughout the South and a reign of terror began, Wells’ sense of indignation and quest for justice was fueled. She decided to use her pen to expose the motives behind the violence. Lynching had become one of the main tactics in the strategy to terrorize blacks, and exposing its real purpose became the target of her crusade for justice. When three of her male friends, who were upstanding, law-abiding, successful businessmen opened a grocery store (in direct competition with a white-owned store), were lynched on the pretext of a crime they did not commit, Wells wrote about the situation with a clarity and forcefulness that riveted the attention of both blacks and whites. Her major contention that lynchings were a systematic attempt to subordinate the black community was incendiary.
She advocated for both an economic boycott and a mass exodus. She traveled through the United States and England, writing and speaking about lynching and the government’s refusal to intervene to stop it. This so enraged her enemies that they burned her presses, and put a price on her head, threatening her life if she returned to the South. She remained in exile for almost forty years.
Wells went to Chicago in the mid-1890s where she met and married Ferdinand Barnett, a widower and a fellow crusader who was a well-known attorney as well as the founder of The Conservator newspaper. In addition to raising Barnett’s two children from his previous marriage, the couple had four children of their own in eight years. Even with this added responsibility, Wells continued in her relentless fight for social justice. She was very active in the suffragist movement and became one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association for Colored Women (NACW).
Ida B. Wells-Barnett died in 1931, leaving a formidable legacy of undaunted courage and tenacity in the fight against racism and sexism in America.
Ida’s parents, James Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton Wells along with Ida’s infant brother Stanley died in a yellow fever epidemic. Ida was left to raise the five surviving children (a brother fell ill and died several years earlier from spinal meningitis). She left Shaw University (now Rust College), passed the teacher’s exam and began work at a school a few miles from Holly Springs.
An aunt invited Ida to move to Memphis, Tennessee where she might enjoy better opportunities. She left her two surviving brothers and a sister, Eugenia, who was paralyzed, in the care of relatives. Her other two sisters, Annie and Lily, accompany Ida to Memphis where she quickly found and accepted a teaching position in the Shelby County school system. Ida became part of the small but vital educated, middle class African-American community in Memphis.
In May, while riding in a “ladies car” on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad, Wells was told by the conductor that she must leave and sit, instead, in a segregated car for blacks. She refused and was involved in a scuffle with the conductor. Wells was physically forced to leave the train. She hired a black lawyer, filed a lawsuit against the railroad, and was awarded $500. The decision was later overruled in 1887 by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wells entered into a career in journalism, writing articles that appeared in The Living Way, a weekly newspaper.
Wells became part owner of the black-run Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight and continues to write under the pen name Iola. She shortened the name of the newspaper to the Memphis Free Speech.
On March 9th, three friends of Wells — Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and William Stewart — were lynched outside of Memphis. The three men owned and operated a store called the People’s Grocery, a business that competed successfully with a white-owned store nearby. The rivalry between the two businesses escalated into violence between whites and blacks. Police charged Moss, McDowell, and Stewart with inciting a riot and arrested them. A mob then stole the men from the jail and murdered them on the outskirts of the city. In protest, Wells wrote a strongly worded and uncompromising editorial in her newspaper, attacking the lynch mob for its barbarism and exposing the South’s justification for lynching — a mob reaction to the crime of rape as a “thread-bare lie.” Angered by the editorial, a violent mob attacked and destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Wells’ life was threatened. She was warned never to return to Memphis. Wells began to investigate the lynching phenomenon from New York, where she wrote for the African-American newspaper, the New York Age. Her findings were compiled and published in the fall in a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases.
Protesting the racism that purposefully excluded African-Americans representation in the Chicago World’s Fair, Wells published The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Colombian Exposition. Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn and Wells’ future husband, Ferdinand Barnett, contributed to the publication.
Wells wrote and published anti-lynching pamphlet, A Red Record. Married Ferdinand L. Barnett who was an attorney and newspaper owner. He had two children from a previous marriage
Participated in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women
Mob Rule In New Orleans was published. In it, Wells-Barnett told the story of Robert Charles, an African-American who challenged police harassment in New Orleans in May 1900
Following a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, Wells-Barnett participated in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Suspicious of the largely white leadership, and skeptical that the organization could effectively address the most difficult racial problems, Wells-Barnett eventually leaves in protest.
In an effort to help black men moving into Chicago, Wells-Barnett founded the Negro Fellowship League. This organization provided shelter, employment, and other services for the urban migrants who came to the city in search of factory work.
Wells- Barnett turned her reformist energies towards winning the vote for all African-Americans; particularly women. She formed the first suffrage club for black women in the state of Illinois: the Alpha Suffrage Club. Participated in the in National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s (a white women’s suffrage group) parade in Washington on March 3rd; a protest timed to coincide with the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as the nation’s 28th President. Characteristically, Wells-Barnett refused to march at the back of the parade and demanded to walk alongside the white delegates from her state. “I shall not march at all,” she declared, “unless I can march under the Illinois banner.” Her protests failed to force a change. Along the parade route, Wells-Barnett stepped out of the crowd
and into line with the main delegation, protected by sympathetic whites and still opposed by others. Her efforts mark the integration of the movement. She returned to Washington D.C. in 1918 to show her support for the Constitutional amendment that gave women the vote.
Wells-Barnett spoke before Marcus Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), congratulating the nationalist leader for unifying African-Americans and instilling them with pride in their people.
Wells-Barnett was selected by the UNIA along with labor leader and fellow editor A. Philip Randolph to attend the Versailles Peace Conference in Paris: a meeting of world leaders at the end of World War I. The U.S. government denied the two permission to attend the conference, claiming that their association with groups like Garvey’s made them dangerous radicals. Wells-Barnett spent the next decade challenging racism and addressing the great issues of her day
Wells died in Chicago on March 25.
Her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, was published by her daughter, Alfreda Duster.
Documentary film, Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice, directed by William Greaves, aired on PBS’ The American Experience Series