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Ida B. Wells
Mary Garrity - Ida B. Wells-Barnett - Google Art Project - restoration crop.jpg
Wells, c. 1893
Ida Bell Wells

(1862-07-16)July 16, 1862
DiedMarch 25, 1931(1931-03-25) (aged 68)
Burial placeOak Woods Cemetery
Other namesIda Bell Wells-Barnett
EducationRust College
Fisk University
OccupationCivil rights and women's rights activist, teacher, local paper editor
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Ferdinand L. Barnett
Parent(s)James Wells and Elizabeth "Izzy Bell" Warrenton

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931), more commonly known as Ida B. Wells, was an African-American investigative journalist, educator, and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).[1] She arguably became the most famous black woman in America, during a life that was centered on combating prejudice and violence.[2]

Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War, she lost both her parents and a sibling in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, when she was 16 years old. She went to work and kept the rest of the family intact with the help of her grandmother. She moved with some of her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, where she found better pay as a teacher. Soon she co-owned a newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.

In the 1890s, Wells documented lynching in the United States, investigating frequent claims of whites that lynchings were reserved for black criminals only. Wells exposed lynching as a barbaric practice of whites in the South used to intimidate and oppress black people, who created economic and political competition and a subsequent threat of loss of power for whites. A white mob destroyed her newspaper office and presses, as her investigative reporting was carried nationally in black owned newspapers.

Subjected to continued threats, Wells left Memphis for Chicago. She then married and had a family while continuing her work writing, speaking, and organizing for civil rights for the rest of her life. Wells was outspoken regarding her beliefs as a Black female activist and faced regular public disapproval, including that of leaders with diverging viewpoints from both the Civil Rights movement and the Women's Suffrage movement. She was nonetheless active in women's rights and the women's suffrage movement, establishing several notable women's organizations. Wells was a skilled and persuasive speaker and traveled internationally on lecture tours.[3]

Early life

Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, the first child of James Wells and Elizabeth "Lizzie" (Warrenton). James Wells' father was a white man who slept with a black slave named Peggy. Before dying, Wells' father brought him to Holly Springs at 18 years old to become a carpenter's apprentice where he developed a skill and worked as a "hired out slave living in town."[4] Lizzie's experience as an enslaved person was quite different. One of ten children born on a plantation in Virginia, Lizzie was sold away from her family and siblings and tried without success to locate her family following the Civil War.[4]

Like many African Americans in the postbellum South, James Wells valued education and became a trustee of Shaw College (now Rust College). He refused to vote for Democratic candidates during the period of Reconstruction, became a member of the Loyal League, and was known as a "race man" for his involvement in politics and his commitment to the Republican Party.[4] James Wells founded a successful carpentry business in Holly Springs in 1867, and Lizzie Wells became known as a "famous cook".[5]

Ida B. Wells was one of eight children ultimately born to James and Lizzie Wells, and she ultimately enrolled in the historically black liberal arts college Rust College in Holly Springs (formerly Shaw College). In September of 1878, tragedy struck the Wells family when both of her parents died during a Yellow Fever epidemic that claimed three of her siblings also. Wells had been visiting her grandmother’s farm near Holly Springs at the time and was spared.

Following the funerals of her parents and brother, friends and relatives decided that the five? remaining Wells children should be separated and sent to various foster homes. Wells resisted this solution. To keep her younger siblings together as a family, she found work as a teacher in a black elementary school in Holly Springs. Her paternal grandmother, Peggy Wells, along with other friends and relatives, stayed with her siblings and cared for them during the week while Wells was teaching.

But when Peggy Wells died from a stroke and her sister Eugenia passed away, Wells accepted the invitation of her aunt Fanny to bring her two remaining sisters to Memphis in 1883.

Early career

It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed ... Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.

—Ida B Wells (1892)[2]

Soon after moving to Memphis, Wells was hired in Woodstock by the Shelby County school system. During her summer vacations she attended summer sessions at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville. She also attended Lemoyne-Owen College, a historically black college in Memphis. She held strong political opinions and provoked many people with her views on women's rights. At 24, she wrote, "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge."[6]

On May 4, 1884, a train conductor with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad[7][8] ordered Wells to give up her seat in the first-class ladies car and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. The year before, the Supreme Court had ruled against the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which had banned racial discrimination in public accommodations). This verdict supported railroad companies that chose to racially segregate their passengers. When Wells refused to give up her seat, the conductor and two men dragged her out of the car. Wells gained publicity in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train. In Memphis, she hired an African-American attorney to sue the railroad. When her lawyer was paid off by the railroad,[9] she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884, when the local circuit court granted her a $500 award. The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling in 1887. It concluded, "We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride."[10][11] Wells was ordered to pay court costs. Wells' reaction to the higher court's decision revealed her strong convictions on civil rights and religious faith, as she responded: "I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people. ... O God, is there no ... justice in this land for us?"[12]

While continuing to teach elementary school, Wells became increasingly active as a journalist and writer. She was offered an editorial position for the Evening Star in Washington, DC, and she began writing weekly articles for The Living Way weekly newspaper under the pen name "Lola." In 1889, Wells became editor and co-owner with J. L. Fleming of The Free Speech and Headlight, a black-owned newspaper established by the Reverend Taylor Nightingale and based at the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis.

In 1891, Wells was dismissed from her teaching post by the Memphis Board of Education due to her articles that criticized conditions in the blacks schools of the region. Wells was devastated but undaunted, and concentrated her energy on writing articles for The Living Way and the Free Speech and Headlight.[13]

Anti-lynching campaign and investigative journalism

The lynching at The Curve in Memphis

In 1889, a black proprietor named Thomas Moss opened the Peoples Grocery in a South Memphis neighborhood nicknamed "The Curve". Wells was close to Thomas Moss and his family, having stood as godmother to his first child. Moss's store did well, and competed with a white-owned grocery store across the street, owned by William Barrett.

On March 2, 1892, a young black boy named Armour Harris was playing a game of marbles with a young white boy named Cornelius Hurst in front of the People’s Grocery. The two boys got into an argument and a fight during the game. As the black boy Harris began to win the fight, the father of Cornelius Hurst intervened and began to "thrash" Harris. The People's Grocery employees William Stewart and Calvin McDowell saw the fight, and rushed outside to defend the young Harris from the adult Hurst as people in the neighborhood gathered in to what quickly became a "racially charged mob."[14]

The white grocer Barrett returned the following day, March 3, 1892, to The People's Grocery with a Shelby County Sheriff's Deputy, looking for William Stewart. But Calvin McDowell, who greeted Barrett, indicated Stewart was not present at the grocery. Barrett was unsatisfied with the response, and was frustrated that the People's Grocery was competing with his store. Angry about the previous day's mêlée, Barrett responded that "blacks were thieves" and hit McDowell with a pistol. McDowell wrestled the gun away and fired at Barrett — missing narrowly. McDowell was later arrested but subsequently released.[15]

On March 5, 1892, a group of six white men including a sheriff's deputy took electric streetcars to The People's Grocery. The group of white men were met by a barrage of bullets from The People’s Grocery, and Shelby County Sheriff Deputy Charley Cole was wounded as well as civilian Bob Harold. Hundreds of whites were deputized almost immediately to put down what was perceived by the local Memphis newspapers Commercial and Appeal-Avalanche as an armed rebellion by black men in Memphis.[16]

Thomas Moss, a postman in addition to being the owner of the People's Grocery, was named as a conspirator along with McDowell and Stewart. The three men were arrested and jailed pending trial.

Around 2:30 a.m. on the morning of March 9, 1892, 75 men wearing black masks took Moss, McDowell, and Steward from their jail cells to at the Shelby County Jail to a Chesapeake and Ohio rail yard one mile north of the city and shot them to death. The Memphis Appeal-Avalanche reports:

Let me give you thanks for your faithful paper on the lynch abomination now generally practiced against colored people in the South. There has been no word equal to it in convincing power. I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison. ... Brave woman!

Frederick Douglass (1895)[17]

Just before he was killed, Moss told the mob "Tell my people to go west, there is no justice here."[18]

After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote in Free Speech and Headlight urging blacks to leave Memphis altogether:

“There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.”[19]

The event led Wells to begin investigating lynchings using investigative journalist techniques. She began to interview people associated with lynchings, including a lynching in Tunica, Mississippi, in 1892 where she concluded that the father of a young white woman had implored a lynch mob to kill a black man she was sleeping with "to save the reputation of his daughter."[20]

In May 1892, Wells published an editorial espousing what she called the "that old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern men are not careful, a conclusion might be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women."[21] Wells newspaper office was burned to the ground, and she would never again return to Memphis.  

Southern Horrors and The Red Record

Cover of Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases
Cover of Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases

On October 26, 1892, Wells began to publish her research on lynching in a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.[22][23] Having examined many accounts of lynchings due to the alleged "rape of white women", she concluded that Southerners cried rape as an excuse to hide their real reasons for lynchings: black economic progress, which threatened white Southerners with competition, and white ideas of enforcing black second-class status in the society. Black economic progress was a contemporary issue in the South, and in many states whites worked to suppress black progress. In this period at the turn of the century, Southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed laws and/or new constitutions to disenfranchise most black people and many poor white people through use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other devices. Wells-Barnett recommended that black people use arms to defend against lynching.[24]

She followed-up with greater research and detail in The Red Record (1895), a 100-page pamphlet describing lynching in the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It also covered black peoples' struggles in the South since the Civil War. The Red Record explored the alarmingly high rates of lynching in the United States (which was at a peak from 1880 to 1930). Wells-Barnett said that during Reconstruction, most Americans outside the South did not realize the growing rate of violence against black people in the South. She believed that during slavery, white people had not committed as many attacks because of the economic labour value of slaves. Wells noted that, since slavery time, "ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, [through lynching] without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution."

Frederick Douglass had written an article noting three eras of "Southern barbarism" and the excuses that whites claimed in each period.

Wells-Barnett explored these in detail in her The Red Record.

  • During slavery time, she noted that whites worked to "repress and stamp out alleged 'race riots.'" or suspected slave rebellions, usually killing black people in far higher proportions than any white casualties. Once the Civil War ended, white people feared black people, who were in the majority in many areas. White people acted to control them and suppress them by violence.
  • During the Reconstruction Era white people lynched black people as part of mob efforts to suppress black political activity and re-establish white supremacy after the war. They feared "Negro Domination" through voting and taking office. Wells-Barnett urged black people in high-risk areas to move away to protect their families.
  • She noted that whites frequently claimed that black men had "to be killed to avenge their assaults upon women." She noted that white people assumed that any relationship between a white woman and a black man was a result of rape. But, given power relationships, it was much more common for white men to take sexual advantage of poor black women. She stated: "Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that black men rape white women." Wells connected lynching to sexual violence showing how the myth of the black man's lust for white women led to murder of African-American men.

Wells-Barnett gave 14 pages of statistics related to lynching cases committed from 1892 to 1895; she also included pages of graphic accounts detailing specific lynchings. She notes that her data was taken from articles by white correspondents, white press bureaus, and white newspapers. The Red Record was a huge pamphlet, and had far-reaching influence in the debate about lynching. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record's accounts of these lynchings grabbed the attention of Northerners who knew little about lynching or accepted the common explanation that black men deserved this fate. Generally southern states and white juries refused to indict any perpetrators for lynching, although they were frequently known and sometimes shown in the photographs being made more frequently of such events.

Despite Wells-Barnett's attempt to garner support among white Americans against lynching, she believed that her campaign could not overturn the economic interests whites had in using lynching as an instrument to maintain Southern order and discourage Black economic ventures. Ultimately, Wells-Barnett concluded that appealing to reason and compassion would not succeed in gaining criminalization of lynching by Southern whites.[25]

Wells-Barnett concluded that perhaps armed resistance was the only defense against lynching. Meanwhile, she extended her efforts to gain support of such powerful white nations as Britain to shame and sanction the racist practices of America.[25]

Speaking tours in Britain

Wells travelled twice to Britain in her campaign against lynching, the first in 1893 and the second in 1894. She and her supporters in America saw these tours as an opportunity for her reach larger, white audiences with her anti-lynching campaign, something she had been unable to accomplish in America.   She found sympathetic audiences in Britain, already shocked by reports of lynching in America. [26]

Wells had been invited for her first British speaking tour by Catherine Impey and Isabella Fyvie Mayo. Impey, a Quaker abolitionist who published the journal Anti-Caste,[27] had attended several of Wells' lectures while traveling in America. Mayo was a well-known writer and poet who wrote under the name of Edward Garrett. Both women had read of the particularly gruesome lynching of Henry Smith in Texas and wanted to organize a speaking tour to call attention to American lynchings.  They asked Frederick Douglass to make the trip,  but citing his age and health, he declined.  He then suggested Wells, who enthusiastically accepted the invitation.[28][29]

In 1894, before leaving the US for her second visit to Great Britain, Wells called on William Penn Nixon, the editor of Daily Inter-Ocean, a Republican newspaper in Chicago. It was the only major white paper that persistently denounced lynching.[30] After she told Nixon about her planned tour, he asked her to write for the newspaper while in England..[31] She was the first African-American woman to be a paid correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper.[32]

Wells toured England, Scotland and Wales for two months, addressing audiences of thousands,[33] and rallying a moral crusade among the British.[34] She relied heavily on her pamphlet Southern Horrors in her first tour, and showed shocking photographs of actual lynchings in America.

As a result of her two lecture tours in Britain, she received significant coverage in British and American news. Many of the articles published at the time of her return were hostile personal critiques, rather than reports of her anti lynching positions. The New York Times, for example, called her "a slanderous and nasty-nasty-minded Mulatress".[35]Despite these attacks in the white press, Wells had nonetheless gained extensive recognition and credibility, and an international audience of white supporters of her cause.

Photo of Ferdinand Lee Barnett, Wells' husband, from 1900.
Photo of Ferdinand Lee Barnett, Wells' husband, from 1900.

Marriage and family

Ida B Wells with her four children, 1909
Ida B Wells with her four children, 1909

In 1895, Wells married attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett,[36] a widower with two sons, Ferdinand and Albert. A prominent attorney, Barnett was a civil rights activist and journalist in Chicago.  Like Wells, he spoke widely against lynchings and for the civil rights of African Americans. Wells and Barnett had met in 1893, working together on  a pamphlet protesting the lack of Black representation at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.  Barnett founded the Chicago Conservator, the first Black newspaper in Chicago, in 1878. Wells began writing for the paper in 1893, later acquired a partial ownership interest, and after marrying Barnett, assumed the role of editor.

Wells’ marriage to Barnett was a legal union as well as a partnership of ideas and actions.  Both were journalists, and both were established activists with a shared commitment to civil rights.  In an interview, Wells’ daughter Alflreda said that the two had "like interests" and that their journalist careers were "intertwined." This sort of close working relationship between a wife and husband was unusual at the time, as women often played more traditional domestic roles in a marriage.[37]

In addition to Barnett's two children from his previous marriage. the couple had four more: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda. In the chapter of her Crusade For Justice autobiography, called "A Divided Duty,"  Wells described the difficulty she had splitting her time between her family and her work. She continued to work after the birth of her first child, traveling and bringing the infant Charles with her. Although she tried to balance her roles as a mother and as a national activist, she was not always successful. Susan B. Anthony said she seemed "distracted".[38]

African-American leadership

The 19th century's acknowledged leader for African-American civil rights, Fredrick Douglass praised Wells' work, giving her introductions and sometimes financial support for her investigations. When he died in 1895, Wells was perhaps at the height of her notoriety but many men and women were ambivalent or against a woman taking the lead in black civil rights, at a time when women were not seen as, and often not allowed to be, leaders by the wider society.[39] For the new leading voices, Booker T. Washington, his rival, W. E. B. Dubois, and more traditionally minded women activists, Wells often came to be seen as too radical.[40] Wells encountered and sometimes collaborated with the others, but they also had many disagreements, while also competing for attention for their ideas and programs. For example, there are differing in accounts for why Wells' name was excluded from the original list of founders of the NAACP. In his autobiography Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois implied that Wells chose not to be included.[41] However, in her autobiography, Wells stated that Du Bois deliberately excluded her from the list.[42]

Organizing in Chicago

Having settled in Chicago, Wells continued her anti-lynching work while becoming more focused on the civil rights of African Americans. She worked with national civil rights leaders to protest a major exhibition, she was active in the national women's club movement, and she ultimately ran for the Illinois State Senate.

Columbian Exposition

In 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago.  Together with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders, Wells organized a black boycott of the fair, for its exclusion of African Americans from the exhibits. Wells, Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn, and Well's future husband, Frederick Barnett, wrote sections of the  pamphlet “The Reason Why: The Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition.”   It detailed the progress of blacks since their arrival in America and also exposed the basis of Southern lynchings. Wells later reported to Albion W. Tourgée that copies of the pamphlet had been distributed to more than 20,000 people at the fair.[44] That year she started work with the Chicago Conservator, the oldest African-American newspaper in the city.

Women’s Clubs

Living in Chicago In the late 19th century Wells was very active in the national Woman's club movement. In 1893, she organized The Women's Era Club, a first-of-its-kind civic club for African-American women in Chicago. It would later be renamed, the Ida B. Wells Club in her honor.[46]  In 1894 she helped found two Chicago clubs in response to a new state law that gave women the right to vote in certain national and state offices, and to run for the elective office of Trustee of the University of Illinois.[47] To support the Republican Party nomination of Lucy L. Flower as a University Trustee, Wells helped organize the Republican Women's Club in Illinois. Flower was eventually elected.[48] That same year Wells was part of a group of women who formed the Alpha Suffrage Club, to encourage women's participation in Chicago politics. On a national level, Wells sought to organize African-American groups across the United States. In 1896 Wells, working with Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Harriet Tubman Mary Church Terrell and others, helped found the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. She also helped organize the National Afro-American Council.

Wells received much support from other social activists and her fellow club women. Frederick Douglass praised her work: "You have done your people and mine a service ... What a revelation of existing conditions your writing has been for me."[49]

Despite Douglass’ praise, Wells was becoming a controversial figure among local and national women's clubs.   This was evident when in 1899 the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs intended to meet in Chicago.  Writing to the President of the Association, Mary Terrell, Chicago organizers of the event stated that they would not cooperate in the meeting if it included Wells. When Wells learned that Terrell had agreed to exclude Wells, she called it "a staggering blow.”[43]


Willard controversy

Wells' role in the U.S. Suffrage movement was inextricably linked to her lifelong crusade against racism, violence and discrimination against African Americans. Her view of women’s enfranchisement was pragmatic and political.[44] Like all suffragists she believed in women's right to vote, but she also saw enfranchisement as a way for Black women to become politically involved in their communities and to use their votes to elect African Americans, regardless of gender, to influential political offices.

As a prominent black suffragist, Wells’ strong positions against racism, violence and lynching brought her into conflict with leaders of largely white suffrage organizations.  The most notable example of this conflict was her very public disagreement with Frances Willard, the first President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

The WCTU was a predominantly white women's organization, with branches in every state and a growing membership. With roots in in the call for temperance and sobriety, the organization later became a powerful advocate of suffrage in the U.S.

in 1893 Willis and Willard travelled separately to Britain on lecture tours. Willis was promoting temperance as well as suffrage for women, and Wells was calling attention to lynching in the U.S. The basis of their dispute was Wells' public statements that Willis was silent on the issue of lynching.[45] She referred to an interview Willard had conducted during her tour of the American South, in which she had blamed African Americans' behavior for the defeat of temperance legislation. "The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt," she had said, and "the grog shop is its center of power. ... The safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities."[63]

Although Willard and her prominent supporter Lady Somerset attempted to limit press coverage of Well’s comments, newspapers in Britain and England in fact provided details of the dispute.

Wells also dedicated a chapter of her 1895 pamphlet A Red Record to juxtapose the different positions that she and Willard held. The chapter titled "Miss Willard's Attitude" condemned Willard for using rhetoric that Wells thought promoted violence and other crimes against African Americans in America.

Alpha Suffrage Club

In the years following her dispute with Willard, Wells continued her Anti- Lynching campaign and organizing in Chicago.  She focused her work on black women’s suffrage in the city following the enactment of a new state law enabling partial women’s suffrage. The Illinois Presidential and Municipal Suffrage Bill of 1913 gave women in the State women the right to vote for presidential electors, mayor, aldermen and most other local offices; but not for governor, state representatives or members of Congress. Illinois was the first state west of the Mississippi to give women these voting rights.[46]

This act was the impetus for Wells and her white colleague Belle Squire to organize the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago in 1913.[47] One of the most important black suffrage organizations in Chicago, the Alpha Suffrage Club was founded as a way to further voting rights for all women, to teach black women how to engage in civic matters and to work to elect African Americans to city offices.   Two years after its founding, the club played a significant role in electing Oscar DePriest as the first African American Alderman in Chicago.[48]

As Wells and Squire were organizing the Alpha Club, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was organizing a suffrage parade in Washington D.C.   Marching the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson in 1913, suffragists from across the country gathered to demand universal suffrage.[49] Wells, together with a delegation of members from Chicago, attended. On the day of the march, the head of the Illinois delegation told Wells the delegates that the NASWA wanted “to keep the delegation entirely white."[50] and all African American suffragists, including Wells were to walk at the end of the parade in a "colored delegation." [51]Instead of going to the back with other African Americans, however, Wells waited with spectators as the parade was underway, and stepped into the white Chicago delegation as they passed by.

Representation in other media

In 1995, the play In Pursuit of Justice: A One-Woman Play About Ida B. Wells, written by Wendy Jones and starring Janice Jenkins, was produced. It is drawn from historical incidents and speeches from Wells' autobiography, and features fictional letters to a friend. It won four awards from the AUDELCO(Audience Development Committee Inc.), an organization that honors black theatre.

Her life is the subject of Constant Star(2002), a musical drama by Tazewell Thompsonthat has been widely performed. The play explores Wells as "a seminal figure in Post-ReconstructionAmerica."

In 2016's Dinesh D'Souza's Hillary's Americabook and film, Carol Swain, a black law professor at Vanderbilt University, tells Wells' story of fighting lynchings and challenging U.S. President Woodrow Wilson over his administration's racial resegregation of the federal work force.

Influence on black feminist activism

Although not a feminist writer herself, Wells-Barnett tried to explain that the defense of white women's honor allowed Southern white men to get away with murder by projecting their own history of sexual violence onto black men. Her call for all races and genders to be accountable for their actions showed African American women that they can speak out and fight for their rights. By portraying the horrors of lynching, she worked to show that racial and gender discrimination are linked, furthering the black feminist cause.[52]

Autobiography and Death

Wells began writing her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928), but never finished the book. She died of uremia (kidney failure) in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68. She was buried in the Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. The cemetery was later integrated by the city.

Selected publications

  • The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. 1895.
  • Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. 1892.
  • Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death, the Story of His Life, Burning Human Beings Alive, Other Lynching Statistics. 1900.

Legacy and honors

Since Wells' death and with the rise of the mid-century civil rights activism, interest in her life and legacy has grown. Awards have been established in Wells' name by the National Association of Black Journalists,[53] the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University,[54] the Coordinating Council for Women in History,[55] the Investigative Fund,[56] the University of Louisville,[57] and the New York County Lawyers' Association,[58] among many others. The Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation and the Ida B. Wells Museum have also been established to protect, preserve and promote Wells' legacy.[59] In her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, there is an Ida B.Wells-Barnett Museum in her honor that acts as a cultural center of African-American history.[60]

In 1941, the Public Works Administration (PWA) built a Chicago Housing Authority public housing project in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the south side in Chicago; it was named the Ida B. Wells Homes in her honor. The buildings were demolished in August 2011 due to changing demographics and ideas about such housing.[61]

In 1988, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[62]

On February 1, 1990, the United States Postal Service issued a 25-cent postage stamp in her honor.[63]

In 2002, Molefi Kete Asante listed Wells on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[64]

In 2006, the Harvard Kennedy School commissioned a portrait of Wells.[65]

In 2011, Wells was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame for her writings.[66]

Wells was featured during the "HerStory" video tribute to notable women on U2's tour in 2017 for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree during a performance of "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"[67] from the band's 1991 album Achtung Baby.

In 2018, The New York Times published a belated obituary for her.[2]

In 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened; it includes a reflection space dedicated to her, a selection of quotes by her, and a stone inscribed with her name.[68][69]

In July 2018, Chicago's City Council officially renamed Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive; it is the first downtown Chicago street named for a woman of color.[70]

Construction of a long-planned Bronzeville, Chicago monument to Wells is scheduled to begin in 2018.[71]

Representation in other media

In 1995, the play In Pursuit of Justice: A One-Woman Play About Ida B. Wells, written by Wendy Jones and starring Janice Jenkins, was produced. It is drawn from historical incidents and speeches from Wells' autobiography, and features fictional letters to a friend. It won four awards from the AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee Inc.), an organization that honors black theatre.[72]

Her life is the subject of Constant Star (2002), a musical drama by Tazewell Thompson that has been widely performed.[73] The play explores Wells as "a seminal figure in Post-Reconstruction America."[73]

In 2016's Dinesh D'Souza's Hillary's America book and film, Carol Swain, a black law professor at Vanderbilt University, tells Wells' story of fighting lynchings and challenging U.S. President Woodrow Wilson over his administration's racial resegregation of the federal work force.[74]

Influence on black feminist activism

Although not a feminist writer herself, Wells-Barnett tried to explain that the defense of white women's honor allowed Southern white men to get away with murder by projecting their own history of sexual violence onto black men. Her call for all races and genders to be accountable for their actions showed African American women that they can speak out and fight for their rights. By portraying the horrors of lynching, she worked to show that racial and gender discrimination are linked, furthering the black feminist cause.[52]

See also


  1. ^ Giddings, Paula J. "Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1862–1931", in Patrick L. Mason (ed.), Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, 2nd edn, vol. 4, Macmillan Reference, 2013, pp. 265–67. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Accessed March 8, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c Dickerson, Caitlin (March 8, 2018). "Ida B. Wells, Who Took on Racism in the Deep South With Powerful Reporting on Lynchings". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 22, 2018.
  3. ^ "Guide to the Ida B. Wells Papers 1884–1976". University of Chicago Library. Retrieved March 21, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c "To Keep the Waters Troubled". Retrieved November 25, 2018.
  5. ^ Giddings, Paula J. (March 3, 2009). Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (Reprint ed.). Amistad. p. 10. ISBN 9780060797362.
  6. ^ Bay, Mia (2009). To Tell the Truth Freely:The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Hill and Wang. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-8090-9529-2.
  7. ^ Lynn Yaeger. Vogue. July 16, 2015.
  8. ^ Franklin, Vincent P. (1995). Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of African American Intellectual Tradition. Oxford University Press
  9. ^ Fridan, D., & J. Fridan (2000). Ida B. Wells: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 21. ISBN 0-395-89898-6
  10. ^ Southwestern Reporter, Volume 4, May 16 – August 1, 1887.
  11. ^ Southwestern Reporter. West Publishing Company. 1887. Retrieved May 12, 2012 – via
  12. ^ Duster, Alfreda (1970). Crusade for Justice. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. xviii. ISBN 0-226-89344-8.
  13. ^ Duster (1970). Crusade for Justice. p. xviii.
  14. ^ Giddings (2009). Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the campaign against lynching. p. 178. ISBN 9780061972942. OCLC 865473600.
  15. ^ Giddings (2009). Ida: A Sword Among Lions. p. 179.
  16. ^ Giddings (2009). Ida: A Sword Among Lions. p. 180.
  17. ^ Gabbidon, Shaun L.; Greene, Helen Taylor; Young, Vernetta D. (2002). African American Classics in Criminology and Criminal Justice. Sage. p. 25. ISBN 9780761924333.
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  25. ^ a b Curry, Tommy J. (2012). "The Fortune of Wells: Ida B. Wells-Barnett's Use of T. Thomas Fortune's Philosophy of Social Agitation as a Prolegomenon to Militant Civil Rights Activism". Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. 48 (4): 456–82. doi:10.2979/trancharpeirsoc.48.4.456.
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Further reading

External links

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