idabwells

IDA B. WELLS – Pioneering Journalist

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, more commonly known as Ida B. Wells (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931), was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, Georgist, and an early leader of the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida was one of eight children, she lost her parents, James Wells and Elizabeth "Lizzie" (Warrenton) Wells and a sibling in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic at a young age. Both of Ida's parents were enslaved by Spires Bolling, an architect. The family resided at Bolling's house, now named the Bolling-Gatewood House, where Lizzie Wells was a cook. 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'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.

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.

Following the funerals of her parents and brother, friends and relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children should be split up and sent to various foster homes. Wells resisted this solution. To keep her younger siblings together as a family, she found work as a teacher in a black elementary school.

Her paternal grandmother, Peggy Wells, along with other friends and relatives, stayed with her siblings and cared for them during the week while Wells was away teaching. Without this help, she would not have been able to keep her siblings together.

Wells resented that white teachers were paid $80 a month in the segregated school system, and she was paid only $30 a month. This discrimination made her more interested in the politics of race and improving the education of black people.

Ida B. Wells c. 1883

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 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. 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.

After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote in Free Speech and Headlight, urging blacks to leave Memphis altogether:

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.

Wells emphasized the public spectacle of the lynching. More than 6,000 black people did leave Memphis; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. After being threatened with violence, she bought a pistol. She later wrote, "They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth."

Ida Wells concluded that perhaps armed resistance was the Nubian's only defense against lynching and recommended that black people use arms to defend against lynching:

The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honour in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.

The murder of her friends drove Wells to research and document lynchings and their causes. She began investigative journalism by looking at the charges given for the murders, which officially started her anti-lynching campaign. She spoke on the issue at various black women's clubs and raised more than $500 to investigate lynchings and publish her results.

Wells found that black people were lynched for such social control reasons as failing to pay debts, not appearing to give way to whites, competing with whites economically, and being drunk in public. She found little basis for the frequent claim that black men were lynched because they had sexually abused or attacked white women. This alibi seemed to have partly accounted for white America's collective acceptance or silence on lynching, as well as its acceptance by many in the educated African-American community. Before her friends were lynched and she conducted research, Wells had concluded that "although lynching was…contrary to law and order…it was the terrible crime of rape [that] led to the lynching; [and] that perhaps…the mob was justified in taking his [the rapist’s] life".

Cover of Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases

In 1892 Wells published her findings in a pamphlet entitled "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases." Having examined many accounts of lynchings due to the alleged "rape of white women," she concluded that Southerners cried rape as an excuse to hide their real reasons for lynchings: black economic progress, which threatened white Southerners with competition, and white ideas of enforcing black second-class status in the society.

She followed this with an editorial that suggested that unlike the myth that white women were sexually at risk of attacks by black men, most liaisons between black men and white women were consensual. After the editorial was published, Wells left Memphis for a short trip to New England, to cover another story for the newspaper. Her editorial enraged white men in Memphis. Their responses in two leading white newspapers, The Daily Commercial and The Evening Scimitar, were brimming with hatred; "the fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome…calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of southern whites. But we have had enough of it". On May 27, 1892, while she was away in Philadelphia, a white mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight.

Numerous other studies have supported Wells' findings of lynching as a form of community control and analyzed variables that affect lynching. Beck and Tolnay's influential 1990 study found that economics played a major role, with the rate of lynchings higher when marginal whites were under threat because of uncertain economic conditions. They concluded the following:

…[L]ynchings were more frequent in years when the "constant dollar" price of cotton was declining and inflationary pressure was increasing. Relative size of the black population was also positively related to lynching. We conclude that mob violence against southern black people responded to economic conditions affecting the financial fortunes of southern whites—especially marginal white farmers.

According to scholar Oliver C. Cox in his 1945 article "Lynching and the Status Quo," the definition of lynching is "an act of homicidal aggression committed by one people against another through mob action…for the purpose of suppressing…[or] subjugating them further".

In an effort to raise awareness and opposition to lynching, Wells spoke to groups in New York City, where her audiences included many leading African-American women. On October 5, 1892, a testimonial dinner held at Lyric Hall, organized by political activists and clubwomen, Victoria Earle Matthews and Maritcha Remond Lyons, raised significant funds for Wells' anti-lynching campaign. The Women's Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn was formed to organize black women as an interest group who could act politically.

Because of the threats to her life, Wells left Memphis altogether and moved to Chicago. She continued to wage her anti-lynching campaign and to write columns attacking Southern injustices. Her articles were published in The New York Age newspaper. She continued to investigate lynching incidents and the ostensible causes in the cases.

Together with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders, she organized a black boycott of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for its failure to collaborate with the black community on exhibits to represent African-American life. Wells, Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn, and Well's future husband Ferdinand Lee Barnett wrote sections of a pamphlet to be distributed there: "Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition." It detailed the progress of blacks since their arrival in America and also exposed the basis of Southern lynchings. Wells later reported to Albion W. Tourgée that copies of the pamphlet had been distributed to more than 20,000 people at the fair. After the World's Fair in Chicago, Wells decided to stay in the city instead of returning to New York. That year she started work with the Chicago Conservator, the oldest African-American newspaper in the city.

Also in 1893, Wells contemplated a libel suit against two black Memphis attorneys. She 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 help but asked his friend Ferdinand Barnett for his aid. Born in Alabama, Barnett had become the editor of the Chicago Conservator in 1878. He served as an assistant state attorney for 14 years. Barnett accepted the pro bono job.

Wells took two tours to Europe in her campaign for justice, the first in 1893 and the second in 1894. In 1893, Wells went to Great Britain at the invitation of Catherine Impey, a British Quaker. An opponent of imperialism and proponent of racial equality, Impey wanted to ensure that the British public learned about the problem of lynching in the US. Wells rallied a moral crusade among the British. Wells accompanied her speeches with a photograph of a white mob and grinning white children posing near a hanged black man; her talks created a sensation, but some in the audiences remained doubtful of her accounts. Wells intended to raise money and expose the US lynching violence but received so little funds that she had difficulty covering her travel expenses. 

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.

In 1894 before leaving the US for her second visit to Great Britain, Wells called on William Penn Nixon, the editor of Daily Inter-Ocean, a Republican newspaper in Chicago. It was the only major white paper that persistently denounced lynching. After she told Nixon about her planned tour, he asked her to write for the newspaper while in England. She was the first African-American woman to be a paid correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper. (Tourgée had been writing a column for the same paper.)

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.

Her article "In Pembroke Chapel" recounted the mental journey that an English minister had shared with her. C. F. Aked had invited Wells to speak. He told her he had found it difficult to accept the level of violence she recounted in her earlier accounts of lynching. He had traveled to the US for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and while there, read in local papers about the Miller lynching in Bardwell, Kentucky. He realized that Wells' accounts were accurate.

Wells was highly effective in speaking to European audiences, who were shocked to learn about the rate of violence against black people in the U.S. Her two tours in Europe helped gain support for her cause. She called for the formation of groups to formally protest the lynchings. Wells helped catalyze anti-lynching groups in Europe, which tried to press the U.S. government to guarantee the safety of blacks in the South.

Photo of Ferdinand Lee Barnett, Wells' husband, from 1900.

In 1895, Wells married attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett, a widower with two sons, Ferdinand and Albert. She was one of the first married American women to keep her own last name as well as taking her husband's.

Ida B Wells with her four children, 1909

The couple had four more children: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda. In the chapter of her Crusade For Justice autobiography, called A Divided Duty, Wells described the difficulty she had splitting her time between her family and her work. She continued to work after the birth of her first child, traveling and bringing the infant Charles with her. Although she tried to balance her world, she could not be as active in her work. Susan B. Anthony said she seemed "distracted". After having her second child, Wells stepped out of her touring and public life for a time.

Ida Wells, her husband, their four children with spouses and grandchildren

Wells often encountered and sometimes collaborated with scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. Both condemned lynching. They also competed for attention. They differed in accounts for why Wells' name was excluded from the original list of founders of the NAACP. In his autobiography, Du Bois implied that Wells chose not to be included. But, in her autobiography, Wells complained that Du Bois deliberately excluded her from the list.

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.)


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series


Text above republished from Wikipedia

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