Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an African American journalist and advocate of women’s rights, including suffrage. Though she was born a slave in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, six months later the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves. Even though they were legally free citizens, her family faced racial prejudice and discrimination while living in Mississippi. Her father helped start Shaw University, and Ida received schooling there, but when she was 16, her parents and one of her siblings died of yellow fever. This meant that as the eldest, Ida had to stop going to school and start taking care of her eight sisters and brothers. Since the family direly needed money, Ida ingeniously convinced a county school official that she was 18 and managed to obtain a job as a teacher. In 1882, she moved to her aunt’s in Nashville with several siblings and at last continued her education at Fisk University.
A direct experience of prejudice in 1884 electrifyingly catalyzed Wells’ sense of the need to advocate for justice. While traveling from Memphis to Nashville, she bought a first-class train ticket, but was outraged when the crew told her to move to the car for African Americans. Refusing, Wells was forced off the train bodily; rather than giving in and giving up, she sued the railroad in circuit court and gained a judgment forcing them to pay her $500. Sadly, the state Supreme Court later overturned the decision; but this experience motivated her to write about Southern racial politics and prejudice. Various black publications published her articles, written under the nom-de-plume “Iola”. Wells later became an owner of two papers, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech.
Besides her journalistic and publishing work, she also as a teacher at one of Memphis’ black-only public schools. She became a vocal critic of the condition of these segregated schools. This advocacy caused her to be fired from her job in 1891. The next year, three African American store owners clashed with the white owner of a store nearby who felt they were competing too successfully for local business; when the white store owner attacked their store with several allies, the black store owners ended up shooting several white men while defending their store. The three black men were taken to jail, but never had their day in court – a lynch mob dragged them out and murdered all three men. Moved to action by this horrible tragedy, she started writing about the lynchings of a friend and others, and went on to do in-depth investigative reporting of lynching in America, risking her life to do so.
While away in New York, Wells was told that her office had been trashed by a mob, and that if she ever came back to Memphis she would be killed. She remained in the North and published an in-depth article on lynching for the New York Age, a paper owned by a former slave; she then toured abroad, lecturing on the issue in the hope of enlisting the support of pro-reform whites. When she found out that black exhibitors were banned at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, she published a pamphlet with the support and backing of famed freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, as well as “A Red Record,” a personal report on lynchings in America.
In 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women; and in 1898, she took her anti-lynching campaign to the White House and led a protest in Washington D.C. to urge President McKinley to act. She was a founding member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), but later cut ties with the organization, feeling that it wasn’t sufficiently focused on taking action. Wells also worked on behalf of all women and was a part of the National Equal Rights League; she continuously fought for women’s suffrage. She even ran for the state senate in 1930, but the next year her health failed, and she died of kidney disease at the age of 68. Well’s life is a testament to courage in the face of danger.
“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”
— Ida B. Wells