African-American history spotlight: Ida B. Wells

Portrait of Ida B. Wells (Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of Ida B. Wells (Wikimedia Commons)

Born July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the product of two slaves, though she eluded enslavement by way of President Abraham Lincoln ratifying the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. She was the eldest of seven — though some sources say eight.

Her parents, James and Elizabeth “Izzy Bell” Wells, were active in the Republican Party during reconstruction. James contributed to the dawn of Shaw University (now Rust College), a school for newly freed slaves, serving on the board of trustees, while also embroiling in the Freedman’s Aid Society.

Wells-Barnett, following suit, also attended Shaw University where she received primal schooling. By 1878, at only 16-years-old, she was dropping out of school on account of her parents and 10-month-old brother, Stanley, dying in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878. With the threat of separation amid the surviving Wells children, Ida B. Wells-Barnett procured a job as a school teacher by lying and saying she was 18, the minimal age for said tutelage — earning a mere $30 a month, compared to her white counterparts at $80 a month. Alongside her aunt, who tended to the children while she was at work, she was able to keep her family together.

In 1882, with her sisters Annie and Lily in tote, Wells-Barnett moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with an aunt. Two of her brothers, whose names are unknown, found work as carpenters while she continued teaching for a school in Woodstock and studying at Fisk University in Nashville. Roughly two years later during one of her train rides from Memphis to Nashville, Wells encountered a tumult which manifested itself as the ignition to her infamous passion.

With the possession of her first-class ticket, Wells-Barnett, 22, sat in the appropriate section of the train. A white woman came along, supposedly without a seat — but it is plausible that vexation (that Wells could afford a first-class seat) could have been a factor as well — and asked for Wells-Barnett’s seat. Refusing to abandon her spot, train personnel were soon involved. A white man — who some sources credit as the conductor — after requesting she leave to no avail, seized Wells-Barnett attempting to abolish her against her will; at which point she secured herself in the chair, even more adamant about not leaving. Tearing her dress in the tussle, Ida “fastened her teeth on the back of his hand.” She sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement — only for it to be overturned by the Supreme Court.

Wells put pen to paper, writing for black publications, chronicling the gnostic conditions of the colored people, condemning violence against blacks, disfranchisement, poor schools and black peoples’ failure to defend their rights. Using the sobriquet, Iola, Wells-Barnett was able to talk as candidly as she pleased without the fear of safety and the restriction of a male surname. Though the origins of said penname is unknown, it is possible it comprised the initials of her and her three youngest siblings, whom she would have still been caring for — Lily, Annie, and her brother, whose name may have started with an O. Wells advanced herself until she eventually, became owner of the “Memphis Free Speech and Headlight,” later renamed “Free Speech.”

In 1891, at 29-years-old, Wells-Barnett was fired from her teaching job after nine years for continuously criticizing the school system, which only allowed her more time to dedicate to her writing. A year later, Wells-Barnett found herself defending three black men who were personal friends of hers.

The men — Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Steward — were three of the most affluent amid Memphis’ 30,000 person black population. They established a grocery store that quickly gained fortune, surpassing that of their white counterpart, Barrett, whose store was across the street. As executives of their grocery company the men each held honorable positions, Moss being president, McDowell the manager and Steward the secretary.

One calamitous day in March 1892, Wells-Barrett, envious and apprehensive, headed an attack on said affluence, rounding up a mob. Tearing through the establishment, an altercation ensued, leaving three white men shot. Moss, McDowell and Steward were arrested and taken to a local jail. Before the men could see a judge, a lynch mob ripped through the jail and abducted the men, killing all three. Despite the victims’ innocence, prominence, and philanthropy — snatched selfishly from their families — authorities didn’t bother to challenge the atrocity.

Wells-Barnett spoke against this horror in her 1893 piece “Lynch Law,” as well as the many others between 1882 and 1893. A featured data-table, courtesy of the January 1892 edition of the Chicago Tribune, showed not only the number of blacks murdered between 1882 and 1891 (800), but also the acompanying “reasons.” Such data served as proof: Of black criminalization through the perpetuation of capital punishment, for constructed reasoning, due to white fears of black liberation and elevation; that a little more than one-third were executed (269) for rape, which most of the time was a bogus charge implemented by white men furious at the consensual relationships between white women and black men, not only tainting white womanhood, but the children that resulted; that another one-third (253) comprised of “murders”; and lastly that the final third was made up of miscellaneous charges, the most common ones being no reason given, robbery, and arson — all deemed offenses punishable by death.

By 1896, Wells-Barnett had founded the National Association of Colored Women, now the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC). She also founded the Women’s Era Club, later renamed the Ida B. Wells Club, and co-founded the National Afro-American Council. Having upset the whites in the south, she began receiving death threats that insisted she leave and never return. That is exactly what she did, taking her talents north, publishing plenty about the lynchings in America and bringing her anti-lynching campaign to the White House in 1898 at the age of 36.

Afterwards she married Ferdinand Barnett, an arresting Chicago attorney, in 1895. Additionally, she helped organize the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People the year after, but left while it was still fresh due to her opposition of Booker T. Washington’s approach. Wells and Barnett eventually had four children — Charles, Herman, Ida and Alfreda. Wells-Barnett remained active in her work after the first child, though her peer Susan B. Anthony said she seemed “distracted.” However, after their second child Wells-Barnett could no longer balance her work and home lives, instead retreating into a period of retirement. She did some writing before dying of kidney failure in Chicago on March 25, 1931. Wells-Barnett was 68-years-old.