Birth/Death (July 6, 1862-March 25, 1931) Journalist, anti-lynching crusader, co-founder of the NAACP
Ida was born in holy springs Mississippi July 16, 1862. She was the first child of Lizzy and James. Her parents were raised on the opposite end of the spectrum. Lizzy, her mother was taken away from her family at a very young age. She was beaten by slave owners and had survived much hardship. Opposite James was 1/2 white and an only child, hence his father gave him more opportunities than a black man during that time period. As a result of there different upbringings, Lizzy and James, raise the children to understand the importance of equality and not to recognize the laws of Jim Crow. Every day while Ida was growing up, her father asked her to read the paper to him. This is especially relevant because it would fuel a large passion later in life.
Unfortunately, grief-struck the family as her parents and one sibling passed away during the yellow fever epidemic that hit the Mississippi Delta. Before the age of 18, she played the role of mother to her younger siblings. Remarkably, Ida went to a school administrator and convinced them that she was 18 to become a school teacher.
It was during the 1880’s she moved to Memphis and continued to teach. Many people at the time were moving into Memphis when Ida arrived over half of the population was black.
On one fateful train ride from Memphis to Nashville, in May 1884, Wells reached a personal turning point. Having bought a first-class train ticket to Nashville, when a white man could not find a seat on the train, a conductor came to Ida and demanded that she move to the train car designated for black passengers. she was outraged when the train crew ordered her to move to the car for African Americans. Ida sued the railroad – and won $500 in a Tennessee Circuit Court. Unfortunately, the Tennessee Supreme Court found in favor of the railroad. (In 1897, the Supreme Court established the legal doctrine of “separate, but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson which codified segregation across the U.S.)
This is a defining moment in history, this is where Ida is fueled by activism and begins her transformation from school teacher to IOLA princess of the press.
Princess of the Press
It wasn’t until Ida was personally confronted with another injustice that her drive for change grew stronger. 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. Their new business drew customers away from a white-owned store in the neighborhood, and the white store owner and his supporters clashed with the three men on a few occasions. One night, Moss and the others guarded their store against attack and ended up shooting several of the white vandals. They were arrested and brought to jail, but they didn’t have a chance to defend themselves against the charges. A lynch mob took them from their cells and murdered them.
Since Wells knew these men and was good friends with Moss. She couldn’t understand why these men who did everything in the world that said blacks should do and still be lynched. Wells became one the first people to bring insight into the broader topic of American lynching, there had been a clear correlation of economic status and lynching to ensure negro’s status could not grow.
Ida spent two months traveling in the South, gathering information on other lynching incidents. She made an effort to collect as much data as possible, white newspapers, pictures, and testimonies. She then used names and dates to put together a comprehensive editorial, that couldn’t go ignored. Her findings uncovered lynching and mob violence were tactics of economic subordination, used to protect white economic power and to ensure a captive black labor force.
Understanding lynching as a tool of state economic repression, Wells encouraged black residents of Memphis to leave, taking with them their labor and capital. The departure of many African American residents had a profound impact on the economics of Memphis. After six weeks of lagging revenue, the local white-owned railway company approached Wells to ask for her support to get blacks to ride the streetcars again. This is where we see Ida really move into a strategy of organizing and being action based.
One of her biggest fear is that racial history is based only from the perspective of those who participated. She worried that future black men won’t get to see the truth or the proprietary of the black economy, but their history will be built on fear of being lynched or being branded as the race that can not prosper. She fought her entire life to protect and embrace black economy and livelihood of every race and gender.
“I refused…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…and…they succeeded in dragging me out.”
Page 18. Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. edited by Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
“The mob took possession of the People’s Grocery Company, helping themselves to food and drink, and destroyed what they could not eat or steal. The creditors had the place closed and a few days later what remained of the stock was sold at an auction. Thus, with the aid of the city and county authorities and the daily papers, that white grocer had indeed put an end to this rival Negro grocer as well as to his business.”
Page 51. Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. edited by Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
“We have learned that every white man of any standing in town knew of the plan and consented of the lynching of our boys.”
Page 54. Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. edited by Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
“If indeed ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ the time has come as never before that the wielders of the pen belonging to the race which is so tortured and outraged, should take serious thought and purposeful action”
Ida B. Wells. Delivered to the National Press Association and published in the Zion Church Quarterly in 1893. The Requirement of Southern Journalism
Hardy, Gayle J. American Women Civil Rights Activists: Biobibliographies of 68 Leaders, 1825-1992. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.
Penn, I. Garland. The Afro-American Press and its Editors. Salem, New Hampshire: Ayer Company, Publishers, Inc., 1891.
Streitmatter, Rodger. Raising Her Voice: African American Women Journalists Who Changed History. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. edited by Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Ida B. Wells Papers in the Department of Special Collections, Joseph Regenstein Library, University of Chicago
Archives and Manuscripts Division at the Chicago Historical Society.
Some correspondence by Wells located in The Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress
Books by Ida . Wells
Wells-Barnett, Ida B.. The Memphis diary of Ida B. Wells. Boston: Beacon Press, c1995.
On lynchings: Southern horrors, A red record, Mob rule n New Orleans. New York, Arno Press, 1969.
On lynchings: Southern horrors, A red record, Mob rule in New Orleans. Salem, New Hampshire: Ayer Co., 1990.
A red record tabulated statistics and alleged causes of lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894. Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry,