Ida B. Wells: Who was she and what were her major accomplishments?
Ida B. Wells was one of the foremost civil rights activists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is most known for her anti-lynching crusade.
Her strong passion for justice took her on a brave journey that saw her even abandon her job as a teacher. Wells devoted her time carrying out investigations into lynching incidents, racial injustice and institutional racism all across America. And although several death threats and other forms of intimidation tactics were thrown her way, she remained firm and fair in exposing the horrors African Americans, especially those living in the South, had to go through on daily basis.
But who was she? And what were some of her important accomplishments?
Read on to find out more.
Who was Ida B. Wells?
Born on July 16, 1862 into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, America, as Ida Bell Wells, she was the born into slavery. She and her family, including 7 siblings, would gain their freedom kind courtesy to the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War.
Growing up, Ida B. Wells and her family suffered all manner of racist abuses from white supremacist groups, who were sour because of the little economic and political gains African Americans were chalking.
Ida B. Wells was once asked to move to the back of a train section for African-Americans even though she had on her a first class ticket.
Those experiences compelled her to add her voice to the campaign against racial inequalities in America. She found no other way than to immerse herself deep into journalism, writing powerful articles about the ills Blacks living in America were put through on a daily basis. The Civil Rights Act did nothing to stop widespread discrimination against African Americans.
When she was around the age of 16, her parents and infant brother succumbed to the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. She then relocated from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee to take up a job as teacher.
Such was her dedication to raising awareness to the deplorable racial situation in the nation that she left her full time job as a teacher. She had grown very frustrated at the way the entire system mistreated colored students. She reasoned that something fast had to be done least those students grew up into bitter adults and not being able to realize their full potential.
In 1889, she became a co-owner and chief editor of a newspaper called the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. As an investigative journalist, she covered real life stories about gross racial injustices, obnoxious segregation laws and barbaric lynching in her state. One of her most famous works that raised awareness to issue was her pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases.
Ida B. Wells’ newspaper came under violent attacks after she passionately reprimanded and exposed the white mob that lynched three businessmen. She stated that the perpetrators deployed lynching to instill fear and suppress African Americans that were legitimately trying to make themselves and their community better.
In 1895, Ida B. Wells got married to Ferdinand Lee Barnett, a Chicago journalist and civil rights activist. Their marriage produced four children, including the famous social worker and civil rights activist Alfreda Duster. Ferdinand had two other children from his previous marriage (to Mary Graham).
She died on March 25, 1931 after succumbing to a kidney failure (uremia). The 68-year-old Black feminist crusader was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.
Major Accomplishments of Ida B. Wells
These are the 8 major accomplishments of Ida B. Wells, the highly respected anti-lynching activist and civil rights crusader.
Showed nerves of steel during her court case against a railroad company
Around mid-summer of 1884, Ida B. Wells found herself in a very inhumane situation as a train conductor and two white men forcefully ejected her from a first class section. Wells, who had a first class ticket, had refused going to back and overcrowded section of the train. The railroad operators were emboldened by a Supreme Court ruling that quashed the efforts by the federal government efforts to end racial discrimination.
Wells took the matter to court; first securing the services of an African-American lawyer, who ended up caving into the pressure of the railroad lobbyist from Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. Therefore, she hired a white lawyer and fought very hard at the local circuit court to secure a 500-dollar ruling in her favor in 1884.
However, her victory was short-lived as the local circuit court’s ruling was reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1887.
Used her well-written articles in numerous newspapers to fight against Jim Crow laws
Ida B. Wells began her journalism career at the Washington, D.C. newspaper the Evening Star, where she served as an editor. She took incredible interest in stories that exposed the negative impact Jim Crow laws had in so many African-American communities across the nation.
Co-founder and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight
Going by the pseudonym “Iola”, Ida B. Wells wrote powerful articles for a number of newspapers like The Living Way and the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. She was the chief editor and co-owner of the latter newspaper.
Her articles about the poor conditions in Black schools caused her to be on the receiving end of the ire of the Memphis Board of Education, who fired her in 1891. Instead of wallow in misery, she shrugged those setbacks off and went full time into journalism.
Thoroughly investigated incidents of lynching and unfair imprisonment of African-Americans
Ida B. Wells was always of the opinion that white mobs lynched Black successful men because they feared deep down of the competition those Black-owned businesses posed to them. This was evident on March 9, 1892, when three Memphis Black businessmen were taking out rail yard and heinously executed by a white mob. The three men – Thomas Moss, Sr., Calvin R. McDowell and William Stewart – were very good friends of Ida B. Wells.
Following the incident, Wells wrote a very passionate article in her newspaper, calling on all Blacks to leave Memphis all together.
She also lent her voice to defending a Black man, William Offet, who was wrongfully convicted of raping a married white woman, Julia Underwood. Offet was slapped with a 15-year prison sentence. Owing to her tireless work, along with that of Underwood’s husband Rev. Isaac T. Underwood, Offet’s was released after spending four years in prison.
Ida B. Wells remained unfazed in the face of death threats and violent attacks against her
After strongly criticizing white people that lynched African Americans out of fear of competition, as well as whites that falsely accused Blacks of raping white women, Ida B. Wells received perhaps the greatest threat to her life. The offices of her newspaper in Memphis were attacked and the press machines were destroyed. Luckily for Wells she was not in Memphis at the time of the attack. The newspaper’s co-owner James L. Fleming, fearing for his life, quickly fled Memphis.
After the attack, the newspaper never really recovered, as the creditors of the newspaper sold of the newspaper’s assets.
Unfazed by the attack, Wells relocated to New York and took up a job at the New York Age, where she continued her anti-lynching campaign.
Newspapers like The Daily Commercial and The Evening Scimita attacked her and called on the South to eliminate her. After her impactful tour in Britain, The New York Times ones called her “a slanderous and nasty-nasty-minded Mulatress”.
Did you know: There exists no copy of Memphis Free Speech newspaper? Much of what we know about the newspaper comes from reprints in other newspapers.
A very vocal Women’s rights activist and suffragist
Ida B. Wells was very active in a host of women’s clubs that promoted women’s rights and suffrage. She used her articles in the newspaper to promote women’s rights at workplaces, and equal employment opportunities. She also campaigned against workplace harassment against women. For example, she was a member of the National Equal Rights League (NERL) which was established in 1864.
She served as the president of NERL’s Chicago bureau. Wells famously called on then-U.S. president Woodrow Wilson to end gender discrimination in federal government jobs. In 1893, she was one of the key organizers of the The Women’s Era Club.
Wells was involved in establishing the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, a very important Black women’s rights and suffrage organization. And unlike many of the women’s rights and suffragist activists back then, Wells always maintained that women’s rights could never be separated from the rights for Blacks.
Ida B. Wells fought against segregation of public schools in America
Long before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of 1954, activists like Ida B. Wells were fervently campaigning against segregation of public schools in America.
Considering the fact that Wells was a teacher, she was in a very a good position to highlight the harmful effects of segregated systems in the educational sector. She criticized the the Chicago Tribune over its publication in 1900 that erroneously heaped praises on racial segregation in public schools.
Collaborating with Jane Addams – a social worker and public administrator and women’s rights suffragist – Ida B. Wells was able to amplify her campaign for increased integrated schools in America.
Author of the Southern Horrors (1892) and The Red Record (1895)
One of Ida B. Wells’ most famous works came in the form of two pamphlets – Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and The Red Record (1895). Both pamphlets analyzed the root causes and the effects of lynching and wrongful conviction of African Americans.
She reasoned that whites in the South used allegations of rape as an excuse to lynch Blacks that were climbing the political and economic ladder. She nicknamed those victims of false accusations as “poor blind Afro-American Sampsons”.
She stated that those successful Blacks were seen by whites a huge threat to their supremacy. Rather than compete in a free and fair manner, they used intimidation to drive Black businesses out of the South. She was also against Southerners that used poll taxes and literacy tests to take away the political rights of blacks.
More Ida B. Wells facts
She was born on a farm called the Bolling Farm in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She had seven siblings.
Her parents were James Madison Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Wells’ father, who was by the way a skilled carpenter, was appointed a trustee of Rust College (then called Shaw College). He also owned a very thriving carpentry business. Wells’ mother on the other hand became a renowned cook in Holly Springs.
Ida B. Wells attended Rust College, a historically Black college in which her father was a trustee.
Her parents died when she was very young, forcing her to discontinue her education and take a job as a teacher. Had it not being the fact that she was at her grandmother’s during the epidemic, Wells would most likely have died.
Both her parents and infant brother died of yellow fever during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.
Famous African-American civil rights leader Frederick Douglass supported her work on numerous occasions.
Along with Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn, and her husband, Ida B. Wells criticized the World’s Columbian Exposition that took place in Chicago in 1893. The civil rights activists bemoaned the lack of any African Americans in the program. They collaborated and penned down a famous pamphlet titled The Reason Why: The Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.
However, she did not always see eye to eye with other civil rights activists like W.E.B. Du Bois. Many considered her approach a bit too radical. This explains why her autobiography stated that Du Bois purposely removed her name from the list of NAACP founders.
Other notable achievements of Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the secretary of the National Afro-American Council from 1898 to 1902.
She was an active member of the group that constituted the Niagara Movement, which would go on to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She would later serve as a member of the NAACP’s executive committee.
She set up the Negro Fellowship League in 1910 to help cater to African Americans that were relocating from the deep South during the Great Migration. Wells was also the first president of the league. Three years later, she founded what many historians reason was the first Black woman suffrage group, the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago.
Ida B. Wells has been posthumously inducted into halls of fame like the National Women’s Hall of fame (in 1988), the Chicago Women’s Hall of Fame (in 1988) and the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame (in 2011).
In spite of receiving constant death threats, she remained resolute in her crusade against lynching. She even took her anti-lynching campaign as far as to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Wells was always willing to collaborate with well-meaning and liberal white politicians that were sympathetic to her cause of ending institutional racism in America.
Her tireless work in promoting social justice in our nation contributed immensely to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, influencing civil rights leaders like MLK, Rosa Parks, Roy Wilkins, etc. She was undoubtedly one of the most famous Black women of her time.
In 2020, Ida B. Wells was posthumously given a special citation by the Pulitzer Prize board for her unflinching courage and ability to use journalism in exposing early 20th century institutional racism in America.