IDA B. WELLS
Ida B. Wells was an intrepid journalist, anti-lynching crusader, women's rights activist, and civil rights pioneer.
Wells was born a slave in Mississippi in 1862, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation. At only 16 years old, Wells took a job as a teacher in Memphis in order to support her five younger siblings.
While commuting to work in 1884, Wells was asked to give up her first-class seat and move to the "colored car." When she refused, it took three train staff members to forcibly remove her. Wells sued the train company and won a $500 settlement, but the verdict was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Wells was so angered by the incident that she wrote a scathing article about her experience for her church's newspaper. It made such an impact that she began writing regularly for black newspapers and periodicals. After an article about the blatant inequality of the Memphis school system and the condition of blacks-only schools cost Wells her job as a teacher, she turned her full attention to journalism, and later became an owner of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper.
In 1892, three of Wells' friends were arrested for defending their grocery store against an attack by white business rivals. Before they could stand trial, a lynch mob broke into the jail and took the men to a field, where they were tortured, mutilated, and brutally murdered. Wells wrote about the situation with "a clarity and forcefulness that riveted the attention of both blacks and whites," wrote Wells' daughter, Alfreda Duster, in 1970. "Her major contention that lynchings were a systematic attempt to subordinate the Black community was incendiary."
Wells traveled throughout the South to investigate other lynching incidents and published her findings in pamphlets entitled "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” and the “Red Record”. Her writings drew attention to the widespread use of baseless rape accusations as an excuse to kill black men. She wrote, “In fact, for all kinds of offenses - and, for no offenses - from murders to misdemeanors, men and women are put to death without judge or jury.”
This led to the destruction of her newspaper office and a price on her head.
After episodes where armed Blacks saved their neighbors from lynch mobs she wrote: “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” In 1893, she moved to Chicago and started writing for the Chicago Conservator, the oldest Black newspaper in the city. She also took her anti-lynching campaign to Europe. She sought to put international pressure on the U.S. to stop brutal violence and atrocities against Black people in the United States.
Ida B Wells was a journalist who dedicated her writing to the struggles of her people. She wrote: “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.” Calling for organizing and action was at the heart of her work.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett died in 1931, leaving behind a legacy of courage and tenacity in the fight against injustice in America.