Ida B. Wells
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931), more commonly known as Ida B. Wells, was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, Georgist, and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
|Ida B. Wells|
Wells, c. 1893
|Born||Ida Bell Wells
July 16, 1862
Holly Springs, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||March 25, 1931
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Occupation||Civil rights and women's rights activist, teacher, local paper editor|
|Spouse(s)||Ferdinand L. Barnett|
|Parent(s)||James Wells and Elizabeth "Izzy Bell" Warrenton|
Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She lost her parents and a sibling in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic at a young age. She went to work and kept the rest of the family intact with the help of her grandmother. She moved with some of her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee where she found better pay for teachers.
In the 1890s, Wells documented lynching in the United States. She showed that lynching was often used in the South as a way to control or punish black people who competed with whites, rather than being based on criminal acts by black people, as was usually claimed by whites. She was active in women's rights and the women's suffrage movement, establishing several notable women's organizations. Wells was a skilled and persuasive rhetorician and traveled internationally on lecture tours.
Early life and educationEdit
Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, several months before United States President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate-held territory. Her parents James Wells and Elizabeth "Lizzie" (Warrenton) Wells, were both enslaved by Spires Bolling, an architect. She was one of eight children. The family resided at Bolling's house, now named the Bolling-Gatewood House, where Lizzie Wells was a cook.
Ida's father was a master at carpentry; after the Civil War and emancipation, he was known as a "race man" who worked for the advancement of black people. He was very interested in politics and became a member of the Loyal League. He attended Shaw University in Holly Springs (now Rust College), but he dropped out to help his family. He also attended public speeches and campaigned for local black candidates but never ran for office himself. A religious woman, Elizabeth Wells was very strict with her children. Both of Ida's parents were active in the Republican Party during Reconstruction.
Ida attended Shaw like her father, but she was expelled for rebellious behavior after confronting the college president. While visiting her grandmother in the Mississippi Valley in 1878, Ida, then aged 16, received word that Holly Springs had suffered a yellow fever epidemic. Both of her parents and her infant brother (Stanley) died during that event, leaving her and her five other siblings orphaned. Wells would find a number of men who served as father figures later in her life, particularly Alfred Froman, Theodore W. Lott, and Josiah T. Settle (with whom she boarded in 1886 and 1887).
Following the funerals of her parents and brother, friends and relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children should be split up and sent to various foster homes. Wells resisted this solution. To keep her younger siblings together as a family, she found work as a teacher in a black elementary school. Her paternal grandmother, Peggy Wells, along with other friends and relatives, stayed with her siblings and cared for them during the week while Wells was away teaching. Without this help, she would not have been able to keep her siblings together. Wells resented that in the segregated school system, white teachers were paid $80 a month and she was paid only $30 a month. This discrimination made her more interested in the politics of race and improving the education of black people.
In 1883, Wells took three of her younger siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with her aunt and to be closer to other family members. She also learned that she could earn higher wages there as a teacher than in Mississippi. Soon after moving, she was hired in Woodstock for the Shelby County school system. During her summer vacations she attended summer sessions at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville. She also attended Lemoyne-Owen College, a historically black college in Memphis. She held strong political opinions and provoked many people with her views on women's rights. At 24, she wrote, "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge."
On May 4, 1884, a train conductor with the Memphis and Charleston Railroad ordered Wells to give up her seat in the first-class ladies car and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. The year before, the Supreme Court had ruled against the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which had banned racial discrimination in public accommodations). This verdict supported railroad companies that chose to racially segregate their passengers. When Wells refused to give up her seat, the conductor and two men dragged her out of the car. Wells gained publicity in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train. In Memphis, she hired an African-American attorney to sue the railroad. When her lawyer was paid off by the railroad, she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884, when the local circuit court granted her a $500 award. The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling in 1887. It concluded, "We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride." Wells was ordered to pay court costs. Wells' reaction to the higher court's decision expressed her strong convictions on civil rights and religious faith, as she responded: "I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people...O God, is there no...justice in this land for us?"
While teaching elementary school, Wells was offered an editorial position for the Evening Star in Washington, DC. She also wrote weekly articles for The Living Way weekly newspaper under the pen name "Iola," gaining a reputation for writing about the race issue. In 1889, she became co-owner and editor of Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregation newspaper that was started by the Reverend Taylor Nightingale and was based at the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis. It published articles about racial injustice. In 1891, Wells was dismissed from her teaching post by the Memphis Board of Education due to her articles that criticized conditions in the coloured schools of the region. Wells was devastated but undaunted, and concentrated her energy on writing articles for The Living Way and the Free Speech and Headlight.
In 1889 Thomas Moss, a friend of Wells, opened the Peoples Grocery in the "Curve," a black neighbourhood just outside the Memphis city limits. It did well and competed with a white-owned grocery store across the street. In 1892, while Wells was out of town in Natchez, Mississippi, a white mob invaded her friends' store. During the altercation, three white men were shot and injured. Moss and two other black men, named McDowell and Stewart, were arrested and jailed pending trial. A large white lynch mob stormed the jail and killed the three men. After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote in Free Speech and Headlight, urging blacks to leave Memphis altogether:
There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.
Wells emphasized the public spectacle of the lynching. More than 6,000 black people did leave Memphis; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. After being threatened with violence, she bought a pistol. She later wrote, "They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth."
The murder of her friends drove Wells to research and document lynchings and their causes. She began investigative journalism by looking at the charges given for the murders, which officially started her anti-lynching campaign. She spoke on the issue at various black women's clubs and raised more than $500 to investigate lynchings and publish her results. Wells found that black people were lynched for such social control reasons as failing to pay debts, not appearing to give way to whites, competing with whites economically, and being drunk in public. She found little basis for the frequent claim that black men were lynched because they had sexually abused or attacked white women. This alibi seemed to have partly accounted for white America's collective acceptance or silence on lynching, as well as its acceptance by many in the educated African-American community. Before her friends were lynched and she conducted research, Wells had concluded that "although lynching was…contrary to law and order…it was the terrible crime of rape [that] led to the lynching; [and] that perhaps…the mob was justified in taking his [the rapist's] life".
She published her findings in a pamphlet entitled "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases." She followed this with an editorial that suggested that unlike the myth that white women were sexually at risk of attacks by black men, most liaisons between black men and white women were consensual. After the editorial was published, Wells left Memphis for a short trip to New England, to cover another story for the newspaper. Her editorial enraged white men in Memphis. Their responses in two leading white newspapers, The Daily Commercial and The Evening Scimitar, were brimming with hatred; "the fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome…calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of southern whites. But we have had enough of it". On May 27, 1892, while she was away in Philadelphia, a white mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight.
Numerous other studies have supported Wells' findings of lynching as a form of community control and analyzed variables that affect lynching. Beck and Tolnay's influential 1990 study found that economics played a major role, with the rate of lynchings higher when marginal whites were under threat because of uncertain economic conditions. They concluded the following:
...[L]ynchings were more frequent in years when the "constant dollar" price of cotton was declining and inflationary pressure was increasing. The relative size of the black population was also positively related to lynching. We conclude that mob violence against southern black people responded to economic conditions affecting the financial fortunes of southern whites—especially marginal white farmers.
According to scholar Oliver C. Cox in his 1945 article "Lynching and the Status Quo," the definition of lynching is "an act of homicidal aggression committed by one people against another through mob action…for the purpose of suppressing…[or] subjugating them further".
In an effort to raise awareness and opposition to lynching, Wells spoke to groups in New York City, where her audiences included many leading African-American women. On October 5, 1892, a testimonial dinner held at Lyric Hall, organized by political activists and clubwomen, Victoria Earle Matthews and Maritcha Remond Lyons, raised significant funds for Wells' anti-lynching campaign. The Women's Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn was formed to organize black women as an interest group who could act politically.
Because of the threats to her life, Wells left Memphis altogether and moved to Chicago. She continued to wage her anti-lynching campaign and to write columns attacking Southern injustices. Her articles were published in The New York Age newspaper. She continued to investigate lynching incidents and the ostensible causes in the cases.
Together with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders, she organized a black boycott of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for its failure to collaborate with the black community on exhibits to represent African-American life. Wells, Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn, and Well's future husband Ferdinand Lee Barnett wrote sections of a pamphlet to be distributed there: "Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition." It detailed the progress of blacks since their arrival in America and also exposed the basis of Southern lynchings. Wells later reported to Albion W. Tourgée that copies of the pamphlet had been distributed to more than 20,000 people at the fair. After the World's Fair in Chicago, Wells decided to stay in the city instead of returning to New York. That year she started work with the Chicago Conservator, the oldest African-American newspaper in the city.
Also in 1893, Wells contemplated a libel suit against two black Memphis attorneys. She turned to Tourgée, who had trained and practiced as a lawyer and judge, for possible free legal help. Deeply in debt, Tourgée could not afford to help but asked his friend Ferdinand Barnett for his aid. Born in Alabama, Barnett had become the editor of the Chicago Conservator in 1878. He served as an assistant state attorney for 14 years. Barnett accepted the pro bono job.
Wells kept track of her life through diaries; in them, she writes few personal things. Before she was married, Wells said that she would date only those men with whom she had "little romantic interest," because she did not want romance to be the centre of the relationship. She wanted it based on her and her partner's mental and personal interaction, rather than physical attraction. Wells acknowledged such flaws as being very quick to criticize and use harsh words toward another. Because she recorded all of her purchases, her diaries revealed that she bought items which she really could not afford.
In 1895, Wells married attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett, a widower with two sons, Ferdinand and Albert. She was one of the first married American women to keep her own last name as well as taking her husband's. The couple had four more children: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda. In the chapter of her Crusade For Justice autobiography, called A Divided Duty, Wells described the difficulty she had split her time between her family and her work. She continued to work after the birth of her first child, travelling and bringing the infant Charles with her. Although she tried to balance her world, she could not be as active in her work. Susan B. Anthony said she seemed "distracted". After having her second child, Wells stepped out of her touring and public life for a time.
Wells took two tours to Europe in her campaign for justice, the first in 1893 and the second in 1894. In 1893, Wells went to Great Britain at the invitation of Catherine Impey, a British Quaker. An opponent of imperialism and proponent of racial equality, Impey wanted to ensure that the British public learned about the problem of lynching in the US. Wells rallied a moral crusade among the British. Wells accompanied her speeches with a photograph of a white mob and grinning white children posing near a hanged black man; her talks created a sensation, but some in the audiences remained doubtful of her accounts. Wells intended to raise money and expose the US lynching violence, but received so little funds that she had difficulty covering her travel expenses.
In 1894 before leaving the US for her second visit to Great Britain, Wells called on William Penn Nixon, the editor of Daily Inter-Ocean, a Republican newspaper in Chicago. It was the only major white paper that persistently denounced lynching. After she told Nixon about her planned tour, he asked her to write for the newspaper while in England. She was the first African-American woman to be a paid correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper. (Tourgée had been writing a column for the same paper.)
Her article "In Pembroke Chapel" recounted the mental journey that an English minister had shared with her. C. F. Aked had invited Wells to speak. He told her he had found it difficult to accept the level of violence she recounted in her earlier accounts of lynching. He had traveled to the US for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and while there, read in local papers about the Miller lynching in Bardwell, Kentucky. He realized that Wells' accounts were accurate.
Wells was highly effective in speaking to European audiences, who were shocked to learn about the rate of violence against black people in the U.S. Her two tours in Europe helped gain support for her cause. She called for the formation of groups to formally protest the lynchings. Wells helped catalyze anti-lynching groups in Europe, which tried to press the U.S. government to guarantee the safety of blacks in the South.
By the late 19th century, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a predominantly white women's organization, had branches in every state and a membership of more than 200,000. Part of the progressive movement, it attracted some women to political activity who considered the suffrage movement as too radical. Other women were active in both movements. Frances Willard was president of the Temperance Union from 1879 to 1898.
Willard was touring England on behalf of temperance when Wells was conducting her anti-lynching campaign there. As Wells described American lynchings, British liberals were incredulous that white American leaders such as Willard, whom the English press had described as the "Uncrowned Queen of American Democracy," would turn a blind eye to such violence. Wells accused Willard of being silent on the issue of lynchings, and of making racial comments that added to mob violence. Wells referred to an interview of Willard during her tour of the American South, in which she had blamed black behavior for the defeat of temperance legislation. "The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt," she had said, and "the grog shop is its center of power... The safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities."
In response, Willard and her supporter Lady Somerset attempted to use their influence to keep Wells' comments at lectures out of the press. Wells said that, despite Willard's having abolitionist forebears and black friends, she would not allow black women to join the WCTU's segregated southern branches.
The dispute between Wells and Willard in England intensified the campaign against Wells in the American press. Though The New York Times had reported on Wells' visit to Britain without much commentary, the paper published an opinion piece in August 1894 that suggested that black men were prone to rape and described Wells as a "slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress" who was looking for more "income" than "outcome." Such attacks in the US press swayed many Britons to support Wells' cause. "It is idle for men to say that the conditions which Miss Wells describes do not exist," a British editor wrote. "Whites of America may not think so; British Christianity does and all the scurrility of the American press won't alter the facts."
Wells also dedicated a chapter of A Red Record to juxtapose the different positions that she and Willard held. The chapter was titled "Miss Willard’s Attitude". It condemned Willard for using rhetoric that Wells thought promoted violence and other crimes against African Americans in America.
Wells' British tour ultimately led to the formation of the British Anti-Lynching Committee, which included prominent members such as the Duke of Argyll, the Archbishop of Canterbury, members of Parliament, and the editors of The Manchester Guardian.
Southern Horrors and The Red RecordEdit
In 1892 Wells published a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Having examined many accounts of lynchings due to the alleged "rape of white women," she concluded that Southerners cried rape as an excuse to hide their real reasons for lynchings: black economic progress, which threatened white Southerners with competition, and white ideas of enforcing black second-class status in the society. Black economic progress was a contemporary issue in the South, and in many states whites worked to suppress black progress. In this period at the turn of the century, Southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed laws and/or new constitutions to disenfranchise most black people and many poor white people through use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other devices.
Wells-Barnett recommended that black people use arms to defend against lynching:
The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honour in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.
Wells-Barnett published The Red Record (1895), a 100-page pamphlet describing lynching in the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It also covered black peoples' struggles in the South since the Civil War. The Red Record explored the alarmingly high rates of lynching in the United States (which was at a peak from 1880 to 1930). Wells-Barnett said that during Reconstruction, most Americans outside the South did not realize the growing rate of violence against black people in the South. She believed that during slavery, white people had not committed as many attacks because of the economic labour value of slaves. Wells noted that, since slavery time, "ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, [through lynching] without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution."
Frederick Douglass had written an article noting three eras of "Southern barbarism," and the excuses which whites claimed in each period.
Wells-Barnett explored these in detail in her The Red Record.
- During slavery time, she noted that whites worked to "repress and stamp out alleged 'race riots.'" or suspected slave rebellions, usually killing black people in far higher proportions than any white casualties. Once the Civil War ended, white people feared black people, who were in the majority in many areas. White people acted to control them and suppress them by violence.
- During the Reconstruction Era white people lynched black people as part of mob efforts to suppress black political activity and re-establish white supremacy after the war. They feared "Negro Domination" through voting and taking office. Wells-Barnett urged black people in high-risk areas to move away to protect their families.
- She noted that whites frequently claimed that black men had "to be killed to avenge their assaults upon women." She noted that white people assumed that any relationship between a white woman and a black man was a result of rape. But, given power relationships, it was much more common for white men to take sexual advantage of poor black women. She stated: "Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that black men rape white women." Wells connected lynching to sexual violence showing how the myth of the black man’s lust for white women led to murder of African American men.
Wells-Barnett gave 14 pages of statistics related to lynching cases committed from 1892 to 1895; she also included pages of graphic accounts detailing specific lynchings. She notes that her data was taken from articles by white correspondents, white press bureaus, and white newspapers. The Red Record was a huge pamphlet, and had far-reaching influence in the debate about lynching. The Southern Horrors:Lynch Law in All Its’ Phases and The Red Record’s accounts of these lynchings grabbed the attention of Northerners who knew little about lynching or accepted the common explanation that black men deserved this fate. Generally southern states and white juries refused to indict any perpetrators for lynching, although they were frequently known and sometimes shown in the photographs being made more frequently of such events.
Despite Wells-Barnett's attempt to garner support among white Americans against lynching, she believed that her campaign could not overturn the economic interests whites had in using lynching as an instrument to maintain Southern order and discourage Black economic ventures. Ultimately, Wells-Barnett concluded that appealing to reason and compassion would not succeed in gaining criminalization of lynching by Southern whites.
Wells-Barnett concluded that perhaps armed resistance was the Nubian's only defense against lynching. Meanwhile, she extended her efforts to gain support of such powerful white nations as Britain to shame and sanction the racist practices of America.
Wells and W. E. B. Du BoisEdit
Wells often encountered and sometimes collaborated with scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. Both condemned lynching. They also competed for attention. They differed in accounts for why Wells' name was excluded from the original list of founders of the NAACP. In his autobiography, Du Bois implied that Wells chose not to be included. But, in her autobiography, Wells stated that Du Bois deliberately excluded her from the list.
Later public careerEdit
In 1894, Wells helped form a Republican Women's Club in Illinois in response to women being granted the right to vote for a state elective office and the right to hold elective office as Trustee of the University of Illinois. The club organized to support the nomination by the Republican Party of Lucy L. Flower to that position, and Flower was eventually elected.
Wells received much support from other social activists and her fellow club women. Frederick Douglass praised her work: "You have done your people and mine a service...What a revelation of existing conditions your writing has been for me." Wells took her anti-lynching campaign to Europe with the help of many supporters. Trying to organize African-American groups across the United States, in 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and the National Afro-American Council.
In 1898, Wells was struggling to manage her busy family life and career, but she was still a fierce campaigner in the anti-lynching circle. That year the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs met in Chicago but did not invite Wells to take part. When she confronted Mary Church Terrell, the president of the club, Wells was told that the women of Chicago had said that, if Wells were to take part in the club, they would no longer aid the association. Wells later learned that Terrell's own competitiveness played a part in excluding her.
After settling in Chicago, Wells worked to improve conditions for its rapidly growing African-American population. They were leaving the rural South in the Great Migration to northern industrial cities. Competition for jobs and housing caused a rise in social tensions; at the same time, there was increased immigration from Europe, and earlier ethnic whites, such as the Irish Americans, worked to defend their own power and territory in the city. Black American migrants had to compete for jobs and housing with millions of immigrants from rural eastern and southern Europe.
Wells worked on urban reform in Chicago during the last thirty years of her life. She also raised her family. After her retirement, Wells began writing her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928). She never finished it; she died of uremia (kidney failure) in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68. She was buried in the Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. (The cemetery was later integrated by the city.)
Legacy and honorsEdit
Since Wells' death and with the rise of the mid-century civil rights activism, interest in her life and legacy has grown. Awards have been established in Wells’s name by the National Association of Black Journalists, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Investigative Fund, the University of Louisville, and the New York County Lawyers Association, among many others. In 2006, the Harvard Kennedy School commissioned a portrait of Wells. The Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation and the Ida B. Wells Museum has been established to protect, preserve and promote Wells’s legacy. In her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, there is an Ida B.Wells-Barnett Museum in her honor that acts as a cultural center of African American history.
In 1941, the Public Works Administration (PWA) built a Chicago Housing Authority public housing project in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the south side in Chicago; it was named the Ida B. Wells Homes in her honor. The buildings were demolished in August 2011 due to changing demographics and ideas about such housing. On February 1, 1990, the United States Postal Service issued a 25-cent postage stamp in her honor. In 2011, Wells was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame for 
In 2002, Molefi Kete Asante listed Wells on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. Wells was featured during the "HerStory" video tribute to notable women on U2's tour in 2017 for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree during a performance of "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" from the band's 1991 album Achtung Baby.
Representation in other mediaEdit
In 1995, the play In Pursuit of Justice: A One-Woman Play About Ida B. Wells, written by Wendy Jones and starring Janice Jenkins, was produced. It is drawn from historical incidents and speeches from Ida B. Wells-Barnett's autobiography, and features fictional letters to a friend. It won four awards from the AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee Inc.), an organization that honors black theatre.
Her life is the subject of Constant Star (2006), a musical drama by Tazewell Thompson. It has been widely performed. The play explores her as "a seminal figure in Post-Reconstruction America."
In 2016's Dinesh D'Souza's Hillary's America book and film, Carol Swain, a black law professor at Vanderbilt University, who is a scholar of the Democratic Party's history of "plantation politics," tells Wells' story of fighting lynchings and challenging U.S. President Woodrow Wilson over his administration's racial resegregation of the federal work force.
Influence on black feminist activismEdit
Although not a feminist writer herself, Wells-Barnett tried to explain that the defense of white women’s honor allowed Southern white men to get away with murder by projecting their own dark history of sexual violence onto black men. Her call for all races and genders to be accountable for their actions showed African American women that they can speak out and fight for their rights. By portraying the horrors of lynching, she worked to show that racial and gender discrimination are linked, furthering the black feminist cause.
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