Born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Ida B. Wells is best known for her anti-lynching activities. A close friend of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, her work as a journalist and lecturer incorporated numerous social justice and reform activities. Although the federal government never passed an anti-lynching bill, her activism and journalism on behalf of the cause in the 1890s helped catapult it into the national spotlight. Before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) started its own anti-lynching files, Wells’s reports provided detailed records about the lynching epidemic of the 1890s and early 20th century.
When Wells was 16, her parents died suddenly in a massive yellow fever epidemic; determined to keep her siblings together, she took responsibility for the five younger children, including a sister with a major disability. She left Rust College early and became a teacher. A friend of her mother’s took care of the children while Wells fulfilled her teaching duties, and Wells spent her teenage weekends raising her younger brothers and sisters.
In the early 1880s, Wells began her career as a journalist writing freelance articles for a church newspaper, Living Way. Taking the pen name Iola, Wells was soon a contributor to many newspapers throughout the country. After she wrote an article criticizing the Memphis city school board in 1891, she was dismissed from her teaching post. She became a full-time journalist and focused on increasing subscriptions to the paper Free Speech, so that it would earn enough revenue to pay her a decent salary. Her popular, out-spoken writing style as well as some travel and lectures brought the Free Speech financial success.
The murder of her close friend Thomas Moss, a proprietor of the black-owned People’s Grocery in Memphis, catapulted Wells into the anti-lynching cause. She immediately wrote an editorial in the Free Speech decrying the crimes, which resulted in death threats and an attack on the paper’s office that precluded her return to Memphis. She went on to write Southern Horrors, A Red Record, and Mob Rule in New Orleans. The scandal surrounding her frank and shocking statements about black sexuality in these works belied her deep moral and spiritual foundation. Like Harriet Jacobs (author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), she criticized whites who called themselves Christians and in one statement claimed that on Judgment Day many white Southerners would refuse to enter heaven when they saw black people inside the pearly gates. Her public defiance and outspoken editorials brought criticism from the white community and some from the African American elite in Memphis who believed such bold activism was not “respectable” among “ladies.” Rumors that she was the concubine of a wealthy white man anticipated the scandal and false accusations of promiscuity and sexual impropriety that would haunt her until she married in her 30s.
Wells’s success on the lecture circuit caused the repeated postponement of her marriage to Ferdinand Barnett, which finally happened on June 27, 1895, in Chicago. Barnett was a prominent lawyer and proprietor of the Chicago Conservator newspaper. They met while working on a pamphlet that protested the absence of African Americans in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Wells-Barnett became editor of the Conservator a week after their wedding and continued to lecture up until the birth in March 1896 of the first of their four children.
Motherhood, however, barely slowed her down; at the December 1898 meeting of the National Afro-American Council, Wells-Barnett premiered her well-known speech “Mob Violence and Anarchy.” In it, she used the example of the Wilmington Riots to point out that Booker T. Washington’s strategy of gaining political rights gradually through economic growth was insufficient. She and her husband would later join other black radicals who refused to follow Booker T. Washington. The Barnetts supported W. E. B. Du Bois and continued activities in protest organizations, including the Niagara Movement (established by Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter in 1905), although Washington’s ascendancy and increasing influence diminished the influence of protest organizations.
Although she was a friend of Susan B. Anthony and other white suffragists, she consistently refused to acquiesce to white Southern suffrage clubs that demanded the exclusion of black women from national meetings and protests. At a 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., Alice Paul and other organizers in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) decided to segregate black suffragists to the back of the parade and explicitly asked Wells-Barnett not to march with the white Illinois delegation. After the parade began, Wells-Barnett stepped out of the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue to march between her white colleagues.
In 1910, Wells-Barnett participated in the founding of the NAACP. According to biographer Patricia Schechter, Wells-Barnett’s radical activism led U.S. military intelligence to label her “a far more dangerous agitator than Marcus Garvey” in 1918. In 1929, dismayed with the lack of black political representation in Illinois, she made an unsuccessful bid for the state senate.
Anthony, Susan B.; Douglass, Frederick; Du Bois, W. E. B.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Women’s Suffrage Movement
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