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Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862March 25, 1931) was an African American journalist, newspaper editor and, with her husband, a newspaper owner. An early leader in the civil rights movement, she documented the extent of lynching in the United States. She was also active in the women's rights movement and the women's suffrage movement.


Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippimarker in 1862, just before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father James Wells was a carpenter and her mother was Elizabeth "Lizzie" Warrenton Wells. Both parents were slaves until freed at the end of the Civil War.

Wells attended the Freedmen's School Shaw University, now Rust College in Holly Springs . When she was 14, both Wells' parents and her 10-month old brother, Stanley, died of yellow fever during an epidemic that swept through the South.

At a meeting following the funeral, friends and relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children would be sent to various aunts and uncles. Wells was devastated by the idea and, to keep the family together, dropped out of high school and found employment as a teacher in a black school. She was determined to keep her family together, even under the difficult circumstances. Her grandmother, Peggy Wells, stayed with the children during the week while she was away to teach; without this help she would have not been able to provide for the family.

In 1880, Wells moved to Memphismarker. There she got a summer job and when possible, she attended summer sessions at Fisk University in Nashvillemarker, whose graduates were well respected in the black community. Wells held strong political opinions and she upset many people with her views on women's rights. When she was 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."

A Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad train conductor ordered Wells to give up her seat on the train to a white man and move to the "Jim Crow" car, which was already crowded with other passengers. At the time, the Supreme Court had just struck down, in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Several railroad companies were able to continue legal racial segregation of their passengers.

Wells protested and refused to give up her seat, 71 years before Rosa Parks. The conductor and two other men dragged Wells out of the car. When she returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an African American attorney to sue the railroad. Wells became a public figure in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article about her treatment on the train.

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 settlement. The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling in 1887, concluding that "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"

While teaching elementary school, Wells was offered an editorial position for the Evening Star. She also wrote weekly articles for the Living Way weekly newspaper under the pen name "Iola."

She slowly gained a reputation for writing about the race issue in the United States. In 1889, she became co-owner and editor of Free Speech, an anti-segregationist newspaper based at the Beale Street Baptist Church Beale Streetmarker in Memphis that published articles about racial injustice.

In 1892, racial tensions rose in Memphis when a grocery store owned by three black men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, was perceived as taking away substantial amount of business from a white-owned grocery store. One night, while Wells was out of town in Natchez, MS selling newspaper subscriptions, an attack broke out, which ended in three white men being shot and injured. Moss, McDowell, and Stewart, who were Wells' friends, were jailed after being accused of raping a white woman. A large lynch mob took the men from jail and killed them in an open field.

After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote an article in the Free Speech urging blacks to leave Memphis: "there is... 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. Some blacks did leave; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. Being personally threatened with violence, Wells wrote in her autobiography that she bought a pistol: "They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth".

The murder of her friends sparked Wells' interest in researching the real reason behind lynching. She began investigative journalism about lynching, positing that lynchings stemmed from economics and greed rather than the crime of raping white women. She wrote an article that implied that liasions between black men and white women were consensual. While she was away in Philadelphia, The Free Speech was destroyed on May 27, 1892, three months after the murders of Moss, Stewart, and McDowell.

She went from Philadelphia to New York City. After arriving in New Yorkmarker, Wells took a job at the New York Age and continued her fight against lynching. Her speaking abilities were tested for the first time when she was asked to speak in front of many important African American women of the time.

As she spoke about the lynchings of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart, she began to cry. Wells became the head of the Anti-Lynching Crusade, later moving to Chicagomarker to continue her work.

In 1892 she published a pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and a A Red Record, documented research on a lynching. Having examined many accounts of lynching based on alleged "rape of white women", she concluded that Southerners concocted rape as an excuse to hide their real reason for lynchings: black economic progress, which threatened not only white Southerners' pocketbooks but also their ideas about black inferiority.

In 1893, Wells and other black leaders, among them Frederick Douglass, organized a boycott of the 1893 World's Columbian Expositionmarker in Chicago. Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn and Ferdinand L. Barnett wrote sections of a pamphlet to be distributed during the exposition. Called Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition, it detailed the workings of Southern lynchings and a handful of other issues impinging on black Americans. She later reported to Tourgée that 2,000 copies had been distributed at the fair. After the World's Fair in Chicago, Wells decided to stay in the city instead of returning to New York City and took work with the Chicago Conservator, the oldest color paper in the city.

Also in 1893, Wells contemplated a libel suit against two black Memphis attorneys. She again 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 do the work, but he asked his friend Ferdinand L. Barnett if he could.Barnett accepted the pro bono job. Ferdinand was born in Alabamamarker. Along with being a lawyer, he was the editor of the "Chicago Conservator" in 1878. The first time Ida met Ferdinand was at a meeting of the Ida B. Wells Club, where Ferdinand was president of the club. Ferdinand was an assistant state attorney for 14 years. Two years later, he and Wells were married. She set an early precedent as being one of the first married American women to keep her own last name with her husband's. This was very unusual for that time.

The two had four children: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda. In a chapter of her autobiography titled "A Divided Duty", she explains the difficulty she has splitting her time between her family and her job. Wells continues to work after the birth of her first two children, traveling and bringing them along with her. Although she tried to balance the two worlds, she was not as active and, as Susan B. Anthony said, Wells "was distracted". Her work focused in Chicago and local groups such as the Ida B. Wells Club and the Chicago Women's Club.

She received much support from other prolific social activists and her fellow clubwomen. In his response to her article in the Free Speech, Frederick Douglass expressed approval of Wells-Barnett's literature: "You have done your people and mine a service…What a revelation of existing conditions your writing has been for me" (Freedman, 1994). Wells- Barnett took her campaign into Europe with the help of many supporters. "People all of the country raised several thousand dollars to enable her to travel abroad" (Feldman, 1964). "A few months after founding the Women’s League, the Women’s Loyal Union, under the leadership of Victoria Matthews, united 70 women from Brooklyn and Manhattan in support of Ida B. Wells and her anti-lynching crusade, helping her to finance her 1892 speaking tour of the United States and the British Isles " (Hewitt & Lebsock, 1993, p. 247). One club, the Women’s Era Club, based in Boston, wrote an open letter of support for Wells and her work (Bressey, 2008). "It was given wide publicity in England, and Wells believed it gave greater weight to the arguments she had been making against lynching" (2008).

In 1893, Wells went to Great Britainmarker at the behest of British Quaker Catherine Impey. An opponent of imperialism and proponent of racial equality, Impey wanted to be sure that the British public was informed about the problem of lynching. Wells went to rally a new reform moral crusade to the English. Although Wells and her speeches, complete with at least one grisly photograph showing grinning white children posing beneath a suspended corpse, caused a stir among doubtful audiences. Her intentions were to raise money and expose the United States, however Wells was paid so little that she could barely pay her travel expenses.

Wells returned to Great Britain in 1894. Before leaving she called on the Editor of Daily Inter-Ocean, Mr. William Penn Nixon and told him about her return to Britain. As she points out in her book Crusade for Justice, the Daily Inter- Ocean was the only paper in America which had persistently denounced lynching. "Mr. Nixon asked her to write for the newspaper while away, and I very gladly accepted the opportunity." In doing so, she became the first black woman paid to be a correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper. (Tourgée had been writing a column for the same paper, which was the local Republican Party organ and competitor to the Democratic Chicago Tribune.) Wells column was called “Ida B. Wells Abroad.” An example of an article that she wrote was called “In Pembroke Chapel.”

This specific article focused on her invitation to speak in the Pembroke chapel whose reverend was C.F. Aked. She describes the reverend as “one of the most advanced thinkers in the pulpit of today" He himself was not confident about the stories that Ida B. Wells told but he went to New York for the World’s Fair and actually saw the reports on the Miller lynching in Bardwell, Kentuckymarker.Wells, Ida B. Crusade for Justice. p. 129. After that point he knew that Ida B. Wells was telling the truth. She was well accepted in Europe, though most of the people there were shocked about the treatment of African Americans in the United States. Wells was successful in spreading the news and getting people to formally release statements saying they disapproved of the situation in America. On a number of accounts, she was faced with people who protested what she was saying, and in these moments she was able support all of the information with research and studies that she had found.

In 1899 while Wells was struggling to manage a home life and a career life, she was still a fierce competitor in the anti-lynching circle. This was illustrated when The National Association of Colored Women's club met that year in Chicago. To Wells' surprise, she was not invited to take part in the festivities. When she confronted the president of the club, Mrs. Terrell, Wells was told that Terrell had received letters from the women of Chicago that if Wells were to take part in the club, they would no longer aid the association. However, Wells later came to find out that the real reason she had not been invited was because Mrs.Terrell's selfish intentions. Mrs.Terrell had been president of the association 2 years' running and wanted to be elected a third time. Mrs.Terrell thought the only way of doing that was to keep Wells out of the picture.

Ida B. Wells's two tours to Europe helped gain support for her cause. She called for the formation of groups to formally protest the actions of white Americans and the lynchings they commit. Wells was a major influence for the formation of many groups across Europe, which helpd led to the international pressure on America for equality.

After traveling through the British Isles and the United States teaching and giving speeches to bring awareness to the lynching problems in America, Wells settled in Chicago, and worked to improve conditions for the rapidly growing African American population there. In 1916 two percent of Chicago’s population was African American; by 1970 it was up to thirty three percent. This rapid increase led to racial tensions much like those in the South, and also tensions, between the African American population and the immigrants from Europe who were now in competition for jobs. Wells spent the latter thirty years of her life working on urban reform in Chicago. While there, she also raised her family and worked on her autobiography. After her retirement, Wells wrote her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928).The book was never finished, in fact it ends in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a word. She died of uremia in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68.


Throughout her life, Wells was militant in her demands for equality and justice for African-Americans and insisted that the African-American community must win justice through its own efforts. Playwright Tazewell Thompson sums her up:
"...A woman born in slavery, she would grow to become one of the great pioneer activists of the Civil Rights movement.
A precursor of Rosa Parks, she was a suffragist, newspaper editor and publisher, investigative journalist, co-founder of the NAACP, political candidate, mother, wife, and the single most powerful leader in the anti-lynching campaign in America.
She was a one women reform against lynching.
She also wrote a novel about the ancient Romans.
Along with co-founding the NAACP, she also had a part in the organization and founding of The National Association of colored women (1896), Negro Fellowship League (1910), and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (1916).
A dynamic, controversial, temperamental, uncompromising race woman, she broke bread and crossed swords with some of the movers and shakers of her time: Frederick Douglass, Susan B.
Anthony, Marcus Garvey, Booker T.
Washington, W.
Du Bois, Frances Willard, and President McKinley.
By any fair assessment, she was a seminal figure in Post-Reconstruction America."
She was born in a rural area and moved to the city of Chicago, where she worked thirty years for reform. She started out as a figure of national fame and over time became more a figure of local fame. She was social worker, a muckraker, and champion of those who did not speak up for themselves.

On February 1, 1990, the United States Postal Service issued a 25 cent postage stamp in her honor.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Ida B. Wells on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

See also



  • Buechler, S.M. (1951). Women’s Movements in The United States. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  • Davis, E.L. (1922). The Story of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Chicago: Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs
  • Gere, A.R. & Robbins, S. R. (1996). Gendered Literacy in Black and White: Turn-of-the-Century African-American and European American Club Club Women's Printed Text. Signs , 643-648.
  • Giddings, P.J. (2008). Ida A Sword Among Lions. New Yorkmarker: Harper Collins Publisher.
  • Hendricks, W.A. (1998). Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • McCammon, H. (2003). The Changing Tactical Repertoire of the U.S. Women's Suffrage Movements. Social Forces , 787-813.
  • McMurray, L.O. (1998). To Keep the Waters Troubled. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Royster, J.J. (1997). Southern Horrors and Other Writings. New York: Bedford.

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