Ida B. Wells has been described in many different ways as a militant, courageous, determined, impassioned and aggressive. Wells was born into slavery; her parents were slaves. Her pace of birth was Holly Springs, Mississippi in the year 1862. Her mother was a deeply religious woman and her father was of an intense independent spirit and welcomed full independence as a result of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
In the 1830’s, Holly Springs had an abundance of cotton plantations. In the post-civil war era its economic base shifted from agriculture and became the home of an iron foundry and the main office of the Mississippi Central Railroad. This change was, in part, a result of the fact that Confederate forces had set the town ablaze during its occupation by the Union army.
Ida grew up in a house built by her father; she was the eldest daughter with seven other siblings. Her father was a skilled carpenter and was well employed in helping to rebuild the town in the aftermath of its destruction. He was also a member of the first board of directors of Rust College – formerly called Shaw University. Wells’ parents were strong advocates of education and she attended Rust College during her childhood. She also was an avid reader of the bible.
In 1878, the town of Holly Springs was struck by an epidemic of Yellow Fever. This created such a panic that 2000 of the 3000 residents fled their. Of those who stayed behind seventy- five percent succumbed to the disease. As a result, Wells lost both parents and three of her siblings including the youngest, Stanley, only 10 months old. This was, of course, a substantial blow to the remaining family and especially Wells, 16 years old and the oldest, for it fell upon her to take care of her siblings. Thankfully, her father left behind money and the Masons – of which her father was a member – served as guardians for the family.
Wells became a teacher and two of her brothers became carpenters like their father. In 1882, Wells accepted a job as a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. In order to fill a requirement for this new position, she commuted to a school in Woodstock, Tennessee to obtain her teacher’s certification. In May of the year 1884, a momentous incidence happened to the young Wells – an event that would make a lasting impression upon her and helped shape her worldview. She was traveling to Woodstock, Tennessee on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, when she was informed that as a “colored” person she was forced to ride in the smoking car. Believing this was totally unjustified, she was adamant in her refusal. When attempts were made to forcefully move her, she left the train, returned to Memphis and immediately began litigation proceedings against the railroad. Her case received media attention on account of the fact that Tennessee law clearly stated that accommodations for people of color must be separate but equal – an example of the prevalence of Jim Crow. However, the smoking car that she was commanded to move to was not commensurate with first class passenger service. On account of the strength of this legal argument, Wells actually won the case; she was awarded $500 in damages. It is interesting that this event is closely analogous to Mahatma Gandhi’s incident on a train in South Africa during the era of Apartheid. It was this occurrence that awakened the young Gandhi to the real nature and pernicious character of racial prejudice and convinced the neophyte lawyer to instigate reform.
Wells’ victory, however, was short-lived; for, it was ultimately reversed by the Supreme Court in April of 1887 - ruling that the smoking car was in fact equivalent to first class accommodations when provided to people of color. Wells was so upset by this decision that she wrote, “…I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people generally. I have firmly believed all along that the law on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now, if it were possible, would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them. O God, is there no redress, no peace, no justice in this land for us? Thou hast always fought the battles of the weak and oppressed. Come to my aid at this moment and teach me what to do, for I am sorely, bitterly disappointed. Show us the way, eve as Thou led the children of Israel out of bondage into the promised land.”
Life was difficult for Wells in the post-reconstruction era in the South on account of her race. In spite of the many obstacles she faced, Wells had developed superb journalistic skills and became a part owner of the Free Speech and Headlight newspaper. In 1891, she lost her position as a teacher on account of her outspoken views. She ultimately renamed her publication and called it simply Free Speech.
In March of 1892 a horrendous event occurred in the city of Memphis that would shape Wells’ future. Three young Black businessmen were lynched by a mob in Memphis. Incensed, Wells utilized her journalistic acumen to both report on the event and relentlessly attack this kind of extreme violent behavior directed against Blacks.
She wrote the following in her publication, Free Speech -
“The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. 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.”
This outspokenness within such a hostile and threatening environment certainly revealed her courage, strength of character and determination. Her words had immediate impact – many members of the Black community in Memphis left town and others organized a boycott against white business owners. As a result, Wells’ newspaper office was destroyed for it was seen as a threat to white-dominated society. Her life was in such jeopardy that she moved to Chicago but continued her journalistic campaign against the extrajudicial practice of lynching of black men that had become quite common.
For this reason, Wells decided not to return home after attending a convention in Philadelphia. Wells, however, would not let fear silence her. Instead, she continued her anti-lynching campaign in which she pointed out the existence of such a horrific practice in the Northeast as well. At that time, Wells presented her point of view in the New York Age – an influential black newspaper that was published between 1887 and 1953.
This reporting also captured the interest of reporters from abroad. As a consequence, she was invited to tell her story in England, Scotland and Wales. While there, Wells was impressed by the progressive activities of women in the UK. She carried these impressions back with her to the States and stressed the importance of women’s organized civic clubs. Notable among these was the Women’s Era Club of Boston, Massachusetts presided over by President Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.
Racial prejudice was so pervasive at that time that Blacks were prevented from participation in the World’s Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in America. Included in the list of those prohibited from participating were such notable representatives as Ferdinand L Barnett and Frederick Douglas. Barnett was an attorney, writer and lecturer; he was instrumental in founding one of Chicago’s first black newspapers, The Chicago Conservator and would later become Wells’ husband. Douglass was a famed abolitionist who was born into slavery in Maryland. He became one of the most famous intellectuals of his time; he was so admired and respected that served as the advisor to presidents.
In spite of this pernicious environment and her horrific experiences and probably because of them, Wells lectured throughout the North and organized anti-lynching committees. As a direct consequence of her journalistic investigation of lynching, Wells authored a book entitled, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States: 1892, 1893, and 1894. In the book entitled, On Lynching: Southern Horrors, A Red Record and A Mob Rule in New Orleans – a compendium of her most valued works - she wrote, “The Afro-American is not a bestial race. If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other considerations are of minor importance.”
In regards to Wells’ personal life, she had a long relationship with Attorney Ferdinand L. Bennett. They were married in 1895 and she gave birth to two sons – the eldest being born in 1897. Her children became targets of race violence from the notorious Thirty-First Street gang in Chicago and for reasons of personal safety for herself and her children she carried a pistol.
From 1898 to 1902 Wells served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council and in 1910 she founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship Leagues; its stated purpose was to aid blacks newly emigrated from the American South. She was militantly opposed to racial prejudice in all its forms both locally in Chicago and throughout the nation. In Chicago she also was instrumental in establishing numerous African-American organizations dedicated to reform and she remained undaunted in the opposition to lynchings that was eloquently expressed in her writing especially one entitled, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In addition, she became involved the burgeoning issue of women’s suffrage and participated in the 1913 march for suffrage in Washington D.C. In this regard, she joined forces with Jane Addams and managed to help prevent the establishment of officially-sanctioned segregation in the Chicago school system.
In 1906, she joined forces with William W.E.B. Dubois and others and in 1909, she was one of the two women signatories to a document that called for the creation of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). William Edward Burghardt "W. E. B." Du Bois (1868 –1963) was an American sociologist and historian. He became renowned as a civil rights activist. He was the first African American to earn a doctorate. Her outspokenness even amongst her peers, however, had made her controversial and was subsequently marginalized from any position of power within the leadership. Wells became thoroughly disheartened by her diminished role with the leadership of the NAACP. As a result, she decided to enter politics. In 1930, she ran for office in the Illinois State Legislature. A year later, she died.
Ida B. Wells was a woman who possessed immense moral courage and an unshakable conviction for the cause of social justice. Her boldness and unflinching insistence on equality and justice left an indelible mark on history of civil rights movement in America and was undoubtedly an inspiration for those who followed.