Black History Month: Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells

(July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931)

6th - Ida B Wells


[su_note note_color=”#40cd11″ radius=”5″]Noteworthy Accomplishments & Historical Facts [su_list icon_color=”#191f17″]
  • A fearless, anti-lynching crusader and a defender of democracy
  • She documented lynching in the US
  • The single most powerful leader in the anti-lynching campaign in America
  • Active in women’s rights & the suffrage movement
  • Established several notable woman’s organizations
  • One of the Founding members of the NAACP
  • Refused to give up her seat on a train (71 years before Rosa Parks made a similar gesture)
  • Historical significance as an important rhetorician
  • One of the great pioneer activists of the Civil Rights movement
  • A seminal figure in Post-Reconstruction America

A Legend Is Born 

Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, just six months before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, to James Wells, and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Warrenton Wells. James served on the first board of trustees for Rust College and made education a priority for his seven children. It was there that Wells received her early schooling. She later attended Shaw University (like her father), but she was expelled for her rebellious behavior and temper after confronting the college president.

While visiting her grandmother in the Mississippi Valley in 1878, Ida received word that Holly Springs had suffered a yellow fever epidemic and both her parents and youngest (10 months old) brother, Stanley died. She was just 16 years old. To keep her remaining six siblings from being separated into different foster homes, she dropped out of school to find a job so that she may keep the family together. She cleverly convinced a school administrator that she was 18 years old, and was offered a teaching position at a Black elementary school. Her grandmother, Peggy, and other friends and family helped watch the children during the week while she worked. She wouldn’t have been able to keep the kids together without this help.

Ida resented that white teachers were paid $80/mo while she was only paid $30/mo. This discrimination only made her more interested in the politics of race, and improving the education of Blacks.

The Move That Sparked Her Journalism Career

In 1884, a train conductor with the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad ordered Ida to give up her seat to a white man and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with passengers. This is how the scene played out…

“I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.” – from Ida B. Wells’ Autobiography

This happened the year before the Supreme Court had invalidated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. This verdict allowed railroad companies to continue racial segregation of their passengers. 

When she got back to Memphis, Tennessee, she hired a Black attorney; however, he was paid off by the railroad company, so she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884, and was awarded a $500 settlement. However, the railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court and they overturned the lower courts ruling; forcing Ida to pay court fees.

This train ordeal helped launch her career in journalism. Everyone wanted to hear how this 23 year old felt about the situation in her own words. While working as a teacher she was offered an editorial position of The Evening Star. She also wrote weekly articles for The Living Way under the pen name “lola,” and gained a reputation for writing about the race issue.

In 1889, she became the Co-Owner and editor of Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregationist newspaper that was started by the Reverend Taylor Nightingale; it was based at the Bale St. Baptist Church in Memphis, TN. The published articles were about racial injustice.

In March 1892, three of her friends (Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart) whom owned People’s Grocery Company, fell victim to violence. One night a white mob stormed into the grocery store upset that the (Blacks) were prospering. They felt as if they (Blacks) were taking customers away from the white owned grocery store across the street – they were seen as direct competition. Upon attack, the three Black men opted to protect themselves; three men were shot and injured (not killed, but INJURED) in the altercation. The three men were arrested and jailed. Not too long after their apprehension, a lynch mob stormed into the jail, dragged them from their cells and murdered them in cold blood! This incident is what spawned her investigative journalism career. 

Investigative Journalist Shedding Light on a Terrible Injustice

After the lynching, she wrote about it in Free Speech and Headlight, urging Blacks to pack up and leave Memphis. This was her message:

“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.”

After this message made its rounds, over 6,000 Blacks left, the ones whom stayed, organized boycotts against white owned businesses. Ida was threatened with violence after the Black response to the lynchings, so she purchased a pistol to protect herself. She later wrote:

“They had me an exile and threatened my life for hinting the truth.”

The murders of her friends drove her to research and document lynchings and their causes. She began investigative journalism and officially started her anti-lynching campaign. She documented that lynching in the US was often a way to control or punish Blacks who competed with whites. More specifically, she found that Blacks were lynched for reasons such as failing to pay debts, not appearing to give way to whites, competing with whites economically, and being drunk in public. 

She also cleared up the misconception that white women were sexually at risk of attacks by Black men; often times the sex between the two was consensual. This was not hearsay, or a matter of opinion, it was all found through her investigative journalism. After the articles were published, a mob destroyed her office on May 27th, 1892, while she was in Philadelphia, in retaliation for the controversial articles. Ida moved from Memphis, TN to Chicago, Illinois because of the repeated threats to her life.

Personal Life and Later Career

Ida took two tours to Europe on her campaign for justice, the first in 1893 and the second in 1894. While she was in Europe she spent her time in both Scotland and England, where she gave many speeches and newspaper interviews. She was effective in speaking to European audiences. They were shocked to learn about the extent of violence against Blacks in the US.

“Wells returned to Great Britain in 1894. Before leaving she called on William Penn Nixon, the editor of Daily Inter-Ocean. This was a Chicago paper that the local Republican Party organ and competitor to the Democratic Chicago Tribune. The Daily Inter- Ocean was the only paper in the US that persistently denounced lynching. After she told Nixon about her planned tour in England, he asked her to write for the newspaper while on tour. She became the first black woman to be a paid correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper” (Wikipedia). 

In 1895, she married, Ferdinand Barnett. She set an early precedent as being one of the first married American women to keep her own last name along with her husband’s. Together they had four children. However, Ida was having a hard time finding that work/life balance and after her second child she stop touring for quite a while.

Later in her career, she founded the National Association of Colored Women, the National Afro-Armerican Council, and Women’s Era Club, which was the first civic organization for African American women. The Women’s Era club was later named the Ida B. Wells club in honor of its founder. Though she is considered a founding member of the NAACP, Ida later cut ties with the organization; she explained her decision thereafter, stating that she felt the organization—in its infancy at the time she left—had lacked action-based initiatives.

Ida B. Wells died of kidney failure in Chicago, IL, on March 25, 1931. She was 69 years old.


[poll id=’8′]



Duke University

Webster University