Remembering Ida B. Wells-Barnett

On July 16, 1862—150 years ago today—one of the most well known civil rights and women’s rights activists in American history was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Within thirty years, this young African American woman, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), would be known across the country and world as the seemingly unafraid journalist leading a fierce anti-lynching crusade.

Born to slaves (freed in 1863), and orphaned at age 16, Wells attended a freedmen’s school in Mississippi before beginning her teaching career as a teenager. By age 22, she had moved to Memphis, Tennessee, attending Fisk University during the summers and teaching during the year.

One might say progressive work was in her blood; her parents were very active in the Republican Party during Reconstruction, and Wells certainly followed in their footsteps. In the mid-1880s—seven decades before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat—Wells was forcibly removed from a train seat. Although she won her case in the local circuit court, the Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling against Wells.

Writing under the pseudonym “Iola,” Wells began to publish newspaper articles calling for an end to racial discrimination and injustice. After three of her friends were brutally lynched in 1892, she began her anti-lynching campaign, publishing articles, lecturing, and organizing anti-lynching societies. It was a dangerous path to choose; soon after she began writing and organizing, she started to receive threats—and, in fact, her newspaper office was destroyed by a mob.

Hostility and threats did not stop her, though. She traveled the country and world, fighting against lynching, and arguing for racial equality, suffrage, and women’s rights. Indeed, she established several women’s organizations, and, when she married attorney and newspaper editor Ferdinand Barnett in 1895, she exhibited her feminism, choosing to keep her own last name alongside that of her husband, thus becoming Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Widely published in newspapers, Wells-Barnett also completed several pamphlets, including Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, and A Red Record, 1892-1894. She remained an active writer and speaker for the rest of her life, helping to found the NAACP and publishing articles advocating racial and gender equality (see, for example, her article about the East St. Louis Massacre of 1917).

Wells-Barnett’s autobiography, Crusade for Justice, was published in 1970, nearly forty years after her death. Numerous collections of her writing are also available (see, for example, Oxford University Press’ The Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett).

The Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation will hold a birthday celebration July 13-15 at the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Also in honor of the 150th anniversary of her birth, the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee commissioned a renowned Chicago sculptor to create a monument, to be installed in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, where she lived for 36 years.

To learn more about Wells-Barnett, check out this summary from Encyclopedia Britannica’s Guide to Black History and this page from PBS. Tennessee History for Kids also provides a nice summary and several pictures.   A youthful portrait at the Library of Congress shows her determination.

To learn more, check out Patricia Schechter’s Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 (UNC Press, 2001). Wells-Barnett’s life and contributions are also discussed in Cecelia Tichi’s Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us) (UNC Press, 2009).