Ida B. Wells- Someone You Should Know
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.
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 pay better for teachers.
In the 1890's, 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.
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).
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. 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.
Wells refused to give up her seat. The conductor and two men dragged Wells out of the car. When she returned to Memphis, she hired an African-American attorney to sue the railroad. 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. 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 colored schools of the region. Wells was devastated but undaunted, and concentrated her energy on writing articles for the 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 neighborhood 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.
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 Club 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.)