Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931), an African American journalist, was an active crusader against lynching and a champion of social and political justice for African Americans.
Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation freed all of the slaves in the Confederate states. Her father, James, was a carpenter and her mother, Elizabeth, a cook. James Wells was a hardworking, opinionated man who was actively interested in politics and in helping to provide educational opportunities for the liberated slaves and for his own eight children. He was on the board of trustees of Rust College, a freedmen's school, where his daughter Ida received a basic education. Elizabeth Wells supervised her children's religious training by escorting them to church services and by insisting that the only book that they could read on Sunday was the Bible. Young Wells was an avid reader and stated that as a result of this rule she had read through the Bible many times.
Tragedy struck the Wells family when she was about 16 years old. Her parents and some of her brothers and sisters died in a yellow fever epidemic while Wells was in another town visiting relatives. With a small legacy left by her parents, she was determined to assume the role of mothering her younger brothers and sisters. By arranging her hair in an adult style and donning a long dress, Wells was able to obtain a teaching position by convincing local school officials that she was 18 years old. A few years later, after placing the older children as apprentices, she moved to Memphis with some of the younger children to live with a relative. She was eventually able to earn a teaching position there by obtaining further education at Fisk University.
In 1884, while she was travelling by train from school, Wells was forcibly thrown out of a first-class car by the conductor because she refused to ride in the car set aside for African Americans which was nicknamed the "Jim Crow" car. She had purchased a first-class ticket and was determined not to move from her seat, but she was not able to defend herself against the conductor, who literally dragged her from her seat while some of the white passengers applauded. However, Wells, who was determined to fight for justice, sued the railroad and won her case. When the decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, Wells just became more determined to fight against racial injustice wherever she found it.
When Wells joined a literary society in Memphis, she discovered that one of their primary activities was to write essays on various subjects and read them before the members. Wells' essays on social conditions for African Americans were so well received that the society members began to encourage her to write for church publications. When she was offered a regular reporting position and part ownership of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in 1887 she eagerly accepted. The name of the newspaper was later shortened to the Free Press, and Wells eventually became its sole owner. She was not afraid to speak out against what she perceived to be injustices against African Americans, especially in the school system where she worked. She believed that the facilities and supplies available to African American children were always inferior to those offered to whites. As a consequence of her editorials about the schools, Wells lost her teaching position in 1891.
One year later, in 1892, three of Wells' friends, who were successful businessmen in Memphis, were killed and their businesses destroyed by whites who Wells accused of being jealous of their success. The Free Speech ran a scathing editorial about the murders in which Wells harshly rebuked the white community. It was probably not coincidental that she was out of town by the time local whites read her paper. An angry mob of whites broke into her newspaper office, broke up her presses, and vowed to kill her if she returned to Tennessee.
Wells became a journalist "in exile, " writing under the pen name "Iola" for the New York Age and other weekly newspapers serving the African American population. She systematically attacked lynching and other violent crimes perpetrated against African Americans. She went on speaking tours in the northeastern states and England to encourage people to speak out against lynching. She wrote well-documented pamphlets with titles such as On Lynchings, Southern Horrors, A Red Record, and Mob Rule in New Orleans.
In 1895 Wells moved to Chicago, where she married a widower named Frederick Barnett. She remained active after she was married and carried nursing children with her during her crusades. She and her husband owned a newspaper for a while, and she continued to write articles for other journals. She actively participated in efforts to gain the vote for women and simultaneously campaigned against racial bigotry within the women's movement. In 1909 she attended the organizational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and continued to work with the organization's founders during its formative years, although her association with the organization was not always peaceful. Wells-Barnett did agree with one of the major thrusts of the organization, however, and that was their desire to see the enactment of federal anti-lynching legislation. She found a settlement house in Chicago for young African American men and women, regularly taught a Bible class at the house, and also worked as a probation officer there. After her death in 1931 her contributions to the city of Chicago were acknowledged when a public housing project was named after her.
Further Reading on Ida. B. Wells-Barnett
Wells-Barnett's autobiography, which was edited by her daughter, Alfreda M. Duster, is entitled Crusader for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1970). Several of Wells-Barnett's pamphlets have been reprinted by Arno Press in On Lynchings: Southern Horrors (1969). There is a short biography of Wells-Barnett in Mississippi Black History Makers (1984) by George A. Sewell and Margaret L. Dwight. An article entitled "The Lonely Warrior: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, " by Thomas Holt is a part of a volume edited by John Hope Franklin and August Meier, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (1982).