This year marks the 151ST Anniversary of the birth of Ida Barnett-Wells, a Black feminist and activist for civil and women’s rights in the 1880s.
She was an advocate of Black American civil rights, women’s rights and economic rights. She was known among Black reporters as ‘the princess of the press,’ who led the nation’s first anti-lynching campaign. Throughout her life, she maintained a fearless devotion to justice, which often placed her in physical danger and social isolation. As a journalist and an activist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett made an indelible mark on the history of the United States and offered a harsh critique of racial, sexual, and economic exploitation of Black people.
Here is her story.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (b. July 16, 1862; d. March 25, 1931). Journalist, activist and civil rights crusader. Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida Bell Wells was the eldest of eight children of Jim Wells and Lizzie Warrenton. Jim Wells was born in Tippah County, Mississippi, the son of his master and an enslave woman, Peggy. He was trained as a carpenter and apprenticed to a White contractor in Holly Springs. Lizzie Warrenton was one of ten children born in slavery in Virginia. Separated from her family and auctioned as a slave, she began to work as a cook on the plantation where Jim Wells was employed. They were married not long after, and once emancipated, the couple remained in Holly Springs, raising their family. Ardent believers in education, they sent their children to school as early as possible. Ida attended Shaw University, a school for freed Black students, which was established in 1866 by the Freedmen’s Aid Society in Holly Springs, and was later renamed Rusk College.
In 1878, a yellow fever epidemic swept through Holly Springs. Jim and Lizzie Wells and their nine-month-old son, Stanley, were among the victims. Another son, Eddie, had died several years before of spinal meningitis. Sixteen-year-old Ida was left with the responsibility of caring for the remaining five children. Her training at Shaw University enabled her to pass the teacher’s exam for the county schools. Ida gained employment at a school six miles from her home on a monthly salary of twenty-five dollars. A year later, on the invitation of her mother’s sister in Memphis, Tennessee, Ida left Holly Springs. Her paralyzed sister, Eugenia, and two brothers remained behind with relatives. Ida took the two younger girls with her to Memphis and secured a teaching job in the Shelby County school district at a higher salary than she had earned in Mississippi.
The Segregated Railway Car Incident
In May 1884, Ida Wells boarded a train owned by Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and sat down in the ladies’ coach. The conductor informed her that he could not take her ticket where she sat and requested that she move to the segregated car. Ida refused to move. The conductor attacked her and forcibly threw her from the train. In retaliation, she hired a Black lawyer and sued the railroad. Disappointed with his lack of attention to her case, she hesitantly turned to a White lawyer and was awarded five hundred dollars. Victory was bittersweet, because the state supreme court reversed the ruling of the lower court.
An avid reader and debater, Ida became a member of a lyceum of public school teachers, and on each Friday afternoon program, the lyceum closed the meeting with a reading of a weekly newspaper, the Evening Star. When the editor of the paper left, Ida took over the editorship, and not long after, she accepted the editorship of the weekly newspaper Living Way. Under the name “Iola,” her weekly column reached mostly rural, uneducated people. She committed the column to writing “in a plain, common-sense way on the things which concerned our people.”
In 1889, Ida bought a one-third interest in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and later became editor. She argued about the poor conditions of local schools for Black children, specifically inadequate buildings and improperly trained teachers, all of which contributed to the mediocre education of Black children. Conservative Black leaders dismissed her argument, and White school board did not renew her contract for the following year. To support herself, Ida began to promote subscriptions for the Free Speech. She successfully canvassed and secured subscriptions throughout the delta region in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
The Moss-McDowell-Steward Lynching in Memphis
On March 9, 1892, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Steward, three Black male colleagues of Ida, were lynched. All were upstanding members of the black community. All three were successful managers of The People’s Grocery Company, a grocery business in a heavily populated black section outside of Memphis. The owner of a competing White grocery store charged them with conspiracy. News of the indictment spread throughout the Black community. The three men and several other Black supporters held a meeting and voiced threats against Whites. They were arrested and incarcerated. Chaos erupted in the Black community. After four days of shooting, Moss, McDowell, and Steward were indicted for inciting a riot and thrown into jail, shot, and hanged.
The deaths of Moss, McDowell, and Steward forced Ida to question not only the rationale of lynchers but also to rethink her own ideas about the reasons for lynching. Like many Americans, Black and white, Ida believed that lynching happened to accused rapists; that is, Black men who had been accused of raping White women. Yet the men brutally murdered in Memphis had not been accused of rape. rather they were pillars of the Black community and good community citizens whose only crime was economic prosperity. Ida then began to investigate cases in which lynch victims were accused of rape. She concluded that lynching was a racist device for eliminating financially independent Black citizens. Her pursuit of the truth led her to create what is now known to us today as investigative journalism.
The following table published by the Chicago Tribune January, 1892, is submitted for thoughtful consideration.
1882,52 [Negroes murdered by mobs]
1883,39 [Negroes murdered by mobs]
1884,53 [Negroes murdered by mobs]
1885,77 [Negroes murdered by mobs]
1886,73 [Negroes murdered by mobs]
1887,70 [Negroes murdered by mobs]
1888,72 [Negroes murdered by mobs]
1889,95 [Negroes murdered by mobs]
1890,100 [Negroes murdered by mobs]
1891,169 [Negroes murdered by mobs]
Of this number 269 were charged with rape.
253 [were charged with] murder.
44 [were charged with] robbery.
37 [were charged with] incendiarism
4 [were charged with] burglary.
27 [were charged with] race prejudice.
13 [were charged with] quarreling with white men.
10 [were charged with] making threats.
7 [were charged with] rioting.
5 [were charged with] miscegenation.
32 [were charged with] no reason given
SOURCE: N.A.A.C.P Archives
Not only were Black men lynched, but so were Black women, Black children, and entire Black families. The use of rape as a defense for lynching was deconstructed by Ida’s valiant efforts. Ida expressed indignation and outrage that “the city of Memphis has demonstrated neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival.” Therefore, she urged the Black citizens of Memphis to “save [their] money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, when accused by white persons.” Whites were so enraged by these allegations that they destroyed her newspaper office while Ida was away and dared her to return to Memphis. Unintimidated by threats, Ida kept a gun in her house and advised Black citizens that “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home. When the white man 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.”
Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, 1892, Ida B. Wells.
In her May 21, 1892 editorial published in the Free Speech, Ida blasted the barbarism of lynching and White race hatred of Blacks. In addition, in her scathing editorial she attacked white female purity and suggested that it was possible for White women to be attracted to Black men:
“Eight negroes lynched since last issue of the ‘Free Speech’ one at Little Rock, Ark., last Saturday morning where the citizens broke (?)[A] into the penitentiary and got their man; three near Anniston, Ala., one near New Orleans; and three at Clarksville, Ga., the last three for killing a white man, and five on the same old racket—the new alarm about raping white women. The same programme of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies was carried out to the letter.
Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
Southern Horrors, 1892.
The Anti-Lynching Crusade
Ida took her fight against lynching across America, and even to Europe, most notably in England. She toured England and Scotland using her investigations as proof of atrocities toward Black Americans. It gained her a national audience and put international pressure on the United States, which offered as Ida stated, the best means of change for Black Americans. She also criticized and denounced the activities of prominent White leaders considered to be supporters of Black American causes. These people, one in particular, Frances Willard, secretary of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and one of the most powerful women’s organizations in the country, did not take strong stances against lynching and in their silence sanctioned mob violence . Leaders like Willard maintained segregated audiences, and in effect, condoned racial segregation, discrimination, and extralegal murder.
In 1892 she published a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and A Red Record, 1892–1894, both of which compiled and documented research on lynching.
Ida was also an energetic and strong voice at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. She solicited funds and published twenty thousand copies of a protest pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the Columbian Exposition, to publicize the inherent racism of the fair’s administration.
In 1895, Ida Wells married Ferdinand Barnett, a lawyer and owner of the Chicago Conservator. Barnett, a widower with two children, was a strong advocate for Black equality. He contributed to Ida’s pamphlet on the Chicago fair, was her strongest supporter, and encouraged her to continue to her anti-lynching activities. Often traveling with one or more of their children, Ida Wells-Barnett was persistent in speaking to groups about lynching and other reform activities.
Ida’s anti-lynching activities were instrumental in making her one of two Black women to sign the 1909 call for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), of which she was one of the founding members. She later broke with the association because of its predominantly White board and because it was timid when confronting racial issues.
The Suffrage Efforts
Ida Wells-Barnett had a strong belief that the vote for all Black Americans was the key to reform and economic, social, and political equality. In her 1910 article “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching,” she asserted that if “the constitutional safeguards to the ballot” are swept aside, then ” it is the smallest of small matter . . . to sweep aside . . . safeguards to human life.” Because she believed that economic and political empowerment for Black citizens required cooperative effort of Black women and men, she organized the Alpha Suffrage Club. Formed in 1913, the club was the first Black female suffrage club in Illinois. The club sent Ida as an Illinois delegate to the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s suffrage parade on March 3, 1913 in Washington, DC. White Illinois delegates pleaded with Ida to march with the Black delegates at the back of the procession. She refused, arguing that, “the southern women have tried to evade the question time and again by giving some excuse or other every time it has been brought up. if the Illinois women do not take a stand now in this great democratic parade then the colored women are lost.” Moreover, she continued, “I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner.” Despite support from a number of White allies, Ida Wells-Barnett’s motion to march with the state contingent fell on deaf ears.
Afterward, Ida disappeared from the parade site. Illinois delegates assumed she had given up in defeat and decided to march with the Black contingent, but as the delegates began marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, Ida quietly stepped out from the crowd of spectators and joined her state colleagues. Her bold action was a public challenge to white supremacy and the policy of expediency adopted by White female suffrage organizations.
Throughout the 1920s, Ida maintained her interest in the political arena, and in 1930 she ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois senate as an independent candidate. She believed agitation, activism, and protest were the only means of change in the United States and saw Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of accommodation as weak. She hailed Marcus Garvey as the person who had “made an impression on this country as no Negro before him had ever done. He was able to solidify the masses of our people and endow them with racial consciousness and racial solidarity.” As a result, the U.S. Secret Service branded her a dangerous radical.
Ida continued to write and report on the controversies of her day. She wrote exposés on several race riots, including the riot in East St. Louis in July 1917, and she pointed out that similar conditions existed in Chicago:
“With one Negro dead as the result of a race riot last week, another one badly injured in the county hospital; with half a dozen attacks upon Negro children, and one on the Thirty-fifth Street car Tuesday, in which four white men beat one colored man . . . the bombing of Negro home and the indifference of the public to these outrages. It is just such a situation as this which led up to the East St. Louis riot.”
(Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 July 1919)
Then, for fourteen days in July and August 1919, Black and White Chicagoans battled. In the end, 38 died and 537 were injured.
After a thirty-year exile from the South, Ida Wells-Barnett returned in 1922 to investigate the case of the Black Arkansas farmers who were indicted for murder in what was known as the Arkansas Race Riot of 1919, about which she published a pamphlet.
Ida Wells-Barnett was a reformer and one of the first Black leaders to link the oppression and exploitation of Black Americans to White economic opportunity. She believed that Black citizens had to organize themselves and take the lead in fighting for their own independence from white oppression. Through her campaigns, speeches, reports, books and agitation, she raised crucial questions about the future of Black Americans.
Ida Wells-Barnett died in Chicago of uremia, a kidney disease. Her autobiography, Crusade For Justice, edited by her daughter, Alfreda Duster, was published posthumously. She fought tenaciously and continuously to bring peace and protection to her Black people.
Ida truly was a sword among lions.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett House
Photograph courtesy of Chicago Landmarks Commission
“Ida Wells-Barnett”, by Wanda A. Hendricks, Black Women in America, Volume 3, by Darlene Clark Hine, Oxford University Press, 2005.