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Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1862–1931

Ida B. Wells-Barnett 18621931

Journalist, editor, activist, lecturer

At a Glance

Turning Point

Crusaded Against Lynching

Formed Black Womens Clubs

Personality Conflicts

Declining Prestige

Selected writings


Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a woman ahead of her timecourageous, independent, assertive, and outspoken. Born a slave, she later became the owner and editor of her own Southern newspaper, crusading at great personal risk against the illegal lynching of blacks and the injustice of segregation. Devoting herself to black progress and racial equality, she played a leading role in the black womens club movement as well as the creation of national organizations. But her determination made her incapable of compromise with fellow black and white reformers who chose to take a more accommodating approach, and her influence waned within many of the same organizations that she had helped found.

The eldest of eight children, Ida Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. Her father, James Wells, was the son of his master and a slave woman. Trained as a carpenter and mason, he became active in politics and education after the Civil War, serving on the first board of trustees of Shaw University, later renamed Rust College, a freedmens school in his hometown.

Ida was attending this school when the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 killed her parents and youngest brother. To keep the remaining family together, she obtained a teaching position in a country school after convincing the local school officials that she was older than she really was. A few years later, she placed the older children in various apprenticeships or with relatives and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, with her two youngest sisters. Wells again found work as a teacher and furthered her education with a short stint at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. A pivotal event in her life then occured.

After refusing to leave the ladies car, for which she had purchased a ticket, and move to the segregated blacks-only coach, she was physically thrown off a Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad train by the conductor in May of 1884. Outraged, she sued the railroad and was awarded $500 in damages. But in April of 1887 the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned this decision, finding that her lawsuit constituted harassment since the railroad had provided like accommodations for Wells. Shocked by the ruling, she wrote in her diary, I have firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now, if it were possible, would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them.

At a Glance

Born Ida Bell Wells, July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, MS; died March 25, 1931, in Chicago, IL; daughter of James (a carpenter and mason) and Elizabeth (a cook) Wells; married Ferdinand Lee Barnett, June 1895; children: Charles, Herman, Ida, Alfreda. Education: Attended Rust College, Holly Springs, MS, and Fisk University, Nashville, TN.

Civil rights activist and writer. Teacher in a rural school in Mississippi, 1878-83; Free Speech, Memphis, TN, editor and owner, 1884-92; New York Age, New York City, part owner and writer, 1892; ant-lynchmg speaking tours in the United States and England, 1893-95; Chicago Conservator, Chicago, IL, part owner and editor, 1895-98; adult probation officer, Chicago, 1913-16. Participated in the founding of several important black organizations, lectured and published on civil rights issues.

Member; Alpha Suffrage Club (founder), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N AACP; founding member), National Association of Colored Women (NACW; founding member), Negro Fellowship League (founding member), Afro-American Press Association (secretary), Afro-American Council, Afro-American League.

Wells gained considerable local fame while living in Memphis, the largest city in the Mississippi Delta region in the 1880s, of which blacks comprised about 44 percent of the population. Her fame came from readings of her essays on social conditions for blacks at one of the literary societies sponsored by the citys small black middle class, a group of teachers who met every Friday night to play music, read essays of their own composition on current events, and debate. Under the pen name loia, she wrote for several Baptist newspapers throughout the South. Many of her early stories highlighted her own experience fighting segregationist Jim Crow laws, such as her unsuccessful suit against the railroad.

As her fame spread so did her activism. She began attending conventions of the newly organized Colored Press Association (later renamed the Afro-American Press Association) and was elected its secretary in 1889. During this time she met T. Thomas Fortune, the nations preeminent black journalist and editor of the New York Age and joined his short-lived organization, the Afro-American League, which he had formed to press for equal rights and full citizenship for blacks.

Her reputation as a fearless activist, however, was secured by her tenure at a small Baptist weekly in Memphis, the Free Speech and Headlight (later shortened to the Free Speech). Wells purchased a one-third ownership of the weekly and became its editor in 1889. Never one to shun controversy, her militant editorials protesting injustices against blacks added to her growing reputation for fearlessness. After she exposed the inferiority of the citys segregated black schools, the Memphis school board fired her from her teaching post in 1891.

Turning Point

The defining moment of her life came the following year in March of 1892. Across the street from a white grocery store on the outskirts of Memphis, three friends of hers had opened a successful grocery store. Business animosities between the two stores soon exploded into a minor riot. Deputies sent to arrest the black storeowners were fired upon by a group of blacks determined to defend them. One deputy was wounded and scores of blacks, including the three storeowners, were arrested. Shortly thereafter, a white mob stormed the jail, kidnapped the storeowners, and killed them.

Wells was outraged. The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival, she proclaimed in the Free Speech. Further editorials encouraged local blacks to 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. Tensions remained high throughout the spring, and Wells began carrying a pistol for protection. An estimated 2,000 blacks left Memphis and those who remained boycotted the recently opened streetcar line, pushing it to the verge of bankruptcy. The white business community was worried; streetcar company managers came to Wells office pleading for her to help halt the boycott.

But she was not in a conciliatory mood, particularly after a new wave of lynchings swept throughout the South. That May she left Memphis to attend the African Methodist Episcopal Church convention, leaving behind an editorial in response to this increasing violence against blacks. Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women, she wrote. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.

White males were outraged. The editorial struck at the heart of their longstanding sexual fears and unchallenged myths about virtuous white southern womanhood. The white Daily Commercial openly called for a lynching. It proclaimed, There are some things that the Southern white man will not tolerate. At night a mob broke into the Free Speech and destroyed the presses. Wells was threatened with death if she dared return to Tennessee.

Crusaded Against Lynching

Wells was in New York during the violence and friends counseled her not to return to the South. Fortune invited her to stay and write for the New York Age. In exchange for the circulation list of the Free Speech, she received one-fourth interest in the New York Age and began researching and writing a series against lynching for it and other weekly black newspapers.

Wells studied the lynchings of 728 black men, women, and children during the ten years preceding the 1892 killings in Memphis. Her detailed statistics and findings formed the basis of two pamphlets, Southern Horrors (1892) and A Red Record (1895), that destroyed the heretofore assumed connection between the lynching of blacks and their rape of white women. In less than one-third of these documented lynchings were blacks accused of rape, and in even fewer instances were they actually guilty of the crime. Instead, most were victims of racial prejudice, dying for crimes of incendiarism, quarreling with whites, or making threats.

To fully attack the rape fantasy, Wells went even further. Her investigations also uncovered a large number of willing interracial sexual liaisons that she cited, some initiated by white women. While blacks were killed for this behavior, whites seduced and raped black women with apparent impunity. Exposing this double standard, she used as an example the actions of a lynch mob that killed a black man from Nashville accused of visiting a white woman, but did not harm a white man convicted of raping an eight-year-old black girl.

Her analysis of mob violence concluded that it lessened when blacks fought back. A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, she counseled in Southern Horrors. When the white man knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. Wells continued her anti-lynching crusade by embarking on speaking tours. Hers was one of the few voices of the era to openly challenge this crime. By exposing the facts and bringing the horror and injustice of lynch law to the publics attention, she was convinced popular pressure would lead to its demise.

Wells lectured in the northeastern states in 1892, visiting England later that year and in 1894. While there, she helped organize the British Anti-Lynching Society in the hope that it could exert a moral influence on prominent American whites. Returning to America, she toured the northern and western states during 1894 and 1895, giving speeches and helping to create similar societies in the United States. At the same time, she started organizing clubs specifically for black women, beginning a national movement.

Formed Black Womens Clubs

While visiting the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago during 1893, Wells organized the first black womens club in Illinois. It would be named after her. One of its early projects was raising money to prosecute a policeman for killing an innocent black man. Later, its members would help establish the first black orchestra in Chicago and open the citys first kindergarten for black children.

After concluding her lecture campaign in the spring of 1895, Wells returned to Chicago to marry Ferdinand L. Barnett, a widowed lawyer who also edited and owned the Chicago Conservator, a weekly black newspaper. Marriage did not temper her fire. She wrote articles on racial issues for the Conservator, the New York Age, and other black papers. In 1895 she played a leading role in the national conference of black womens clubs that established the National Federation of Afro-American Women. The following year this group merged with two others to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).

Pregnant with her second child in 1897, Wells-Bamett resigned the presidency of the Ida B. Wells Club, the Barnetts sold the Conservator, and she ostensibly retired to private life. But she reentered public life within five months. A brutal lynching compelled her to lobby Congress and President McKinley in 1898 for an anti-lynching law, telling him, We refuse to believe this country, so powerful to defend its citizens abroad, is unable to protect its citizens at home.

That same year the Afro-American Council was reorganized, and Wells-Barnett took charge of its anti-lynching bureau. Her belief that educating and influencing prominent whites to join her crusade was the key to effecting change continued. She soon became upset with the inability of Fortune, the councils militant founder, to attract and work with white reformers. But her aggressive and strident attacks on lynching, particularly her exposure of interracial sexual relations, also brought her into conflict with the more conciliatory black leader Booker T. Washingtons strategy of quiet racial diplomacy. Increasingly outspoken and assertive, she was growing intolerant of those whose positions contradicted her own.

Personality Conflicts

Throughout the 1890s, Southern blacks were disenfranchised, lynched with relative impunity, and victimized by mob violence. Wells-Barnett, having personally witnessed and investigated many of the most egregious incidences, was incapable of following Washingtons accommodating tactics. Instead, she usually supported the more militant methods and actions of his rival, W. E. B. Du Bois. Unfortunately for her, Washington proved to be a powerful antagonist in the coming years.

Wells-Barnett briefly slowed down to give birth to two more children, Ida in 1901 and Alfreda in 1904, before renewing her work, actively investigating lynchings and race riots in Cairo and Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917, and Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919. She campaigned for the Republican party in Illinois and Missouri, participated in Chicago mayoral elections, demonstrated on behalf of women being allowed to vote, and organized perhaps the first black womens suffrage group, Chicagos Alpha Suffrage Club.

In response to the Springfield riots, black and white leaders called a national conference in 1909, forming the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Such a national biracial group working for black civil rights had long been Wells-Barnetts goal. Though playing an active role in the organizations founding and serving on its executive committee for years, she never held an important leadership position at either the national or local level. Her strong-willed personality and Washingtons opposition were making her an unwelcome participant in broad-based organizations.

The Springfield riots spurred Wells-Barnett to form the Negro Fellowship League in 1910, initially from members of her Sunday bible class. This shelter and settlement house in Chicagos burgeoning black ghetto provided lodging, a reading room, a social center, and an employment center for southern black migrants pouring into the city. When her political contacts resulted in a job as an adult probation officer in 1913, she worked out of the center and used her salary to help support it.

Declining Prestige

In 1916 a local branch of the National Urban League opened in Chicago. Supported by Washingtons followers, its mission was the same as Wells-Barnetts Negro Fellowship League. Many of her friends and former supporters left her to endorse the new organizations settlement house. A growing lack of funds and the loss of her probation job after William Thompson became mayor in 1915 made it difficult to keep her center open. After her recovery from a gallstone operation in 1920, she closed its doors.

Wells-Barnett ran for president of the NACW in 1924 but lost to Mary McLeod Bethune. Four years later she unsuccessfully sought election to the Illinois State Senate. Rejected by the black womens club movement she had founded, denied a significant role in the NAACP after her years spent campaigning to create just such an organization, forced to close her settlement house, and lacking any political power after Mayor Thompsons election, she began writing her autobiography, Crusade for Justice.

All at once the realization came to me that I had nothing to show for all those years of toil and labor, she wrote. It is a bitter assessment of her career, centering on the loneliness of her struggle and the ingratitude of her fellow blacks. Wells-Barnett died of uremia in March of 1931. The public did not draw the same conclusions when assessing her career. Chicago acknowledged her many contributions to the city by naming a public housing project after her. In 1987 the Tennessee Historic Commission recognized her work by dedicating a commemorative marker in her honor on Beale Street in Memphis.

Selected writings

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, edited by Alfreda M. Duster, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

On Lynching (collection, including Southern Horrors, A Red Record, and Mob Rule in New Orleans), Amo Press, 1969.

Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Oxford University Press, 1991.



Davidson, Sue, Getting the Real Story, Seal Press-Feminist, 1992.

Holt, Thomas, Black Leaders of the 20th Century, edited by John Hope Franklin and August Meier, University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Sterling, Dorothy, Black Foremothers: Three Lives, The Feminist Press, 1979.

Thompson, Mildred I., Ida B. Wells-Barnett: An Exploratory Study of an American Black Woman, 1893-1930, Carlson Publishing, 1990.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B., Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, edited by Alfreda M. Duster, University of Chicago Press, 1970.


Christian Century, March 15, 1989, pp. 285-86.

Essence, February 1988, pp. 75-9.

Phylon, summer 1971, pp. 112-22.

James J. Podesta

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Wells-Barnett, Ida Bell


Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was a prominent and often controversial African–American reformer who spoke out against racial oppression in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The daughter of slaves, Wells-Barnett conducted a self-described crusade for justice to protest the savage lynchings of hundreds of African Americans in the South. Her impassioned antilynching lectures and publications had an enormous effect on public opinion in the United States and Great Britain. Outspoken and self-confident, Wells-Barnett was viewed with hostility by many whites and rebuffed by several African–American leaders who resented her frequent criticism of their efforts. Yet, even her detractors conceded that Wells-Barnett's unshakable commitment to the social, political, and economic advancement of African Americans propelled the struggle for civil rights.

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and it does seem that notwithstanding all those social agencies and activities there is not vigilance, which should be exercised in the preservation of our rights."
—Ida B. Wells Barnett

Born July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells-Barnett was the oldest of eight children of James Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton Wells. After the Civil War, her father was a carpenter and a leader in local Reconstruction activities. Wells-Barnett attended Shaw University (later renamed Rust College), an African American school for all grade levels established in Holly Springs in 1866 by Freedmen's Aid, a church-sponsored effort to educate former

slaves. The northern Methodist missionaries who taught at the school considered Wells-Barnett an exemplary student.

When Wells-Barnett was sixteen years old, her parents and youngest brother died in a yellow fever epidemic. Wells-Barnett insisted on raising her surviving siblings while teaching school in a rural district. By 1883, her brothers were old enough to begin work as carpenters, so Wells-Barnett and her sisters moved to Memphis, to live with an aunt. Wells-Barnett attended classes at Fisk University and taught school in Memphis until 1891, when she was fired from her job for criticizing the segregationist policies of the Memphis School Board. Angry articles by Wells-Barnett in the small newspaper Free Speech and Headlight denounced the limited educational opportunities for African Americans in "separate-but-equal" Memphis schools. Writing under the pen name Iola, Wells-Barnett discovered her talent for journalism and her calling as a social activist.

Wells-Barnett became co-owner and editor of Free Speech and a vocal opponent of jim crow laws in the South. In one Free Speech article, she described her own frustrating 1884 lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio, & Southwestern Railroad. The dispute began when Wells-Barnett boarded a train in Memphis en route to Woodstock, Tennessee. After taking her usual seat in the "ladies car," which was a first-class coach, she and the other African–American women in that car were told by the conductor to move to the smoking car, which was not first-class. By Tennessee law, African Americans were to be assigned separate and equal accommodations on public transportation.

When Wells-Barnett refused to sit in the smoking car, she was forced off the train. Later, she sued the railroad and won $500 in damages from a lower state court. Her triumph was short-lived, however, because the award was overturned in 1887 by the Supreme Court of Tennessee, which determined that a smoking car could indeed serve as a first-class accommodation for African Americans (Chesapeake, Ohio, & Southwestern Railroad Co. v. Wells, 85 Tenn. (1 Pickle) 613, 4 S.W. 5 [1887]). The Tennessee high court suggested that Wells-Barnett's real motive in refusing to sit in the smoking car was to harass the railroad and to lay the groundwork

for a profitable lawsuit. The court chastised Wells-Barnett for failing to try in good faith to secure a comfortable seat. The stark injustice of the court's reversal fueled Wells-Barnett's determination to speak out against the mistreatment of African Americans.

For Wells-Barnett, the pivotal event in her activist career was the lynching in 1892 of her friends Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart, three African–American merchants from Memphis. The men owned the People's Grocery, a thriving operation that had cut into the profits of its white competitors. When a mob of white men was deputized to arrest the three merchants on trumped-up criminal charges, violence erupted, and the innocent African Americans were hanged.

Wells-Barnett was outraged. She wrote a scathing editorial in Free Speech, denouncing not only the murder of her friends but also the offensive, widely accepted rationale for most lynchings. Wells-Barnett observed that contrary to southern myth, lynchings were rarely if ever spontaneous group acts in retaliation for sexual misconduct by African–American men. A lynch mob was actually a barbaric mechanism for maintaining power among whites and for denying African Americans their civil rights. Protecting the reputation of southern white women was a smoke screen. Wells-Barnett also asserted that any sexual liaisons between African–American men and white women were consensual, an observation that enraged much of the conservative white population.

After the editorial was published, an angry throng of white men stormed the Free Speech office and destroyed Wells-Barnett's printing press. Wells-Barnett was in Philadelphia at the time.

These episodes of mob rule, so contrary to the democratic ideal, led Wells-Barnett to launch an antilynching campaign. Wells-Barnett relied not only on righteous indignation but on shocking national statistics to make her case against lynching. In articles and speeches, she quoted a grim fact: in 1894, 132 legal executions were carried out in the United States, and 197 lynchings occurred. African Americans were receiving the death penalty from self-appointed white citizens without the benefit of criminal investigations, formal charges, legal representation, or trials. Wells-Barnett's findings were published in 1895 in a detailed book entitled A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892–1893–1894.

In 1893, Wells-Barnett carried her antilynching campaign to Great Britain in the hope of exerting international pressure on U.S. legislators to enact antilynching laws. She was well received in Great Britain and spoke to large crowds. While in Europe, she was a guest at several women's civic clubs and was impressed with their worthwhile, community-minded activities. Wells-Barnett exported the idea to the United States, where African–American women's clubs flourished.

In 1895, Wells-Barnett married Ferdinand L. Barnett, the first African–American state's attorney in Illinois. After the marriage, Wells-Barnett curtailed her international speaking but continued to write in national publications. The couple lived in Chicago and had four children. Wells-Barnett worked hard to improve conditions for African Americans in Chicago by serving as a social worker and community organizer.

Wells-Barnett was well-known throughout the United States, yet the political power she craved eluded her. Although she was involved in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she alienated many of her African–American colleagues with her sharp tongue and unbending manner. Also, she was an unreserved critic of the accommodationist position favored by booker t. washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute and the most influential African–American leader at the time. Wells-Barnett favored a militant approach to achieving racial equality and was not welcome in the Washington camp. Other women such as Mary McLeod Bethune eventually eclipsed Wells-Barnett in influence. A combination of politics and personal animosity prevented Wells-Barnett from achieving the level of African–American leadership she sought.

Although Wells-Barnett felt stymied near the end of her career, she earned an honored and lasting place in history as one of the first African American civil rights activists. Daughter Alfreda M. Barnett Duster wrote that Wells-Barnett "fought a lonely and almost single-handed fight, with the single-mindedness of a crusader, long before men or women of any race entered the arena" (Wells 1970, xxxii).

Wells-Barnett died in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of sixty-eight. In 1950 the city of Chicago named her one of the twenty-five most outstanding women in its history.

further readings

Franklin, John Hope, and August Meier, eds. 1982. Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

McMurry, Linda O. 1998. To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Schechter, Patricia A. 2001. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880–1930. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Wells, Ida B. 1970. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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Wells-Barnett, Ida B.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 18621931


Ida Bell Wells-Barnett gained a national reputation in the 1890s as a pioneering crusader against lynching. Her long career spanned a wide variety of venues, including schoolroom, settlement house, municipal court, electoral politics, home, church, and social club. Journalism, however, was her calling. Her publications, many of them too militant or sharply worded to find a substantial receptive audience, remain her greatest legacy.

The eldest of eight children, Ida was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, fifty miles southeast of Memphis. Her parents died in the yellow fever epidemic that swept through the Mississippi River Valley in 1878, leaving sixteen-year-old Ida to care for five siblings. She quickly secured a teaching position, made possible by her education at Shaw University in Holly Springs. Between 1880 and 1882 she relocated to Memphis, taking along two sisters and leaving her other siblings in the care of relatives.

Wells found her teaching career in Memphis unsatisfying, and she soon discovered a far more rewarding form of pedagogy: journalism. She published her first newspaper article in a church weekly in 1883, and began sending articles about black women to major African American publications in eastern cities. By 1885, writing as Iola, she was among the few African American women writing about politics, and in 1889 she became co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Her straightforward criticism in 1891 of the Memphis school boards neglect of black children and exploitation of black female teachers led to a decision not to renew her teaching appointment.

Wellss uncompromising journalism reflected her general approach to race relations. At the age of twenty-two, she sued a railroad after being thrown off the train for refusing to ride in a segregated car. In 1892 three Memphis black grocers were lynched after a conflict with a white competitor envious of their success. Wells later recalled that the event changed the whole course of my life (DeCosta-Willis 1995). Her unsigned attack on the lynching eschewed the cautious convention observed by southern black spokesmen who paired their criticism of lynching with ritualized reminders that the black community should not accept criminal behavior within its ranks. Wells understood that lynching was meant less to punish depravity (which white southerners expected from their Negroes) than to punish the more dangerous sin of a black person not accepting his place.

Wells left Memphis immediately, probably expecting the mob attack on her newspaper the following day. She spent the next three years in eastern cities and Great Britain, lecturing and writing (now under the name Exile). Drawing on statistics compiled from careful research, she demonstrated that less than a third of lynching victims had even been accused of rape. Lynching, she argued, had less to do with the honor of white womanhood than an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and keep the nigger down (DeCosta-Willis 1995, p. xiii). Her charge that liaisons between white men and black women constituted the true threat to racial purity stirred even greater controversy.

Wells visited Chicago in 1893 to protest the exclusion of African Americans from the Worlds Columbian Exposition. Characteristically, she took a more militant position that most of her peers, advocating a boycott of the Colored American Day granted by the fair managers to placate the protesters. She relocated to Chicago permanently two years later, marrying prominent attorney Ferdinand Barnett. Over the next three decades she wrote less, putting her energies into the woman suffrage movement, local politics, and social work. In 1910 she founded the Negro Fellowship League as a venue for missionary work and social work on the citys South Side. Facing competition first from the citys black YMCA (1913) and then Urban League (1915), the Fellowship League shifted to a focus on politics and had only a minor presence by the time black southerners began moving to Chicago in large numbers in late 1916.

Wells-Barnett, who attended the founding meeting of the NAACP in 1910 in New York, never established herself as a major figure in African American institutional life. Although conventionally middle class in style, manners, and religious observance, she had limited patience with polite diplomacy during a generally cautious era of black politics.

Although she effectively mobilized black voters briefly through the Alpha Suffrage Club (established in 1913), Ida B. Wells was more adept at analytical and rhetorical provocation than organization. She understood in the 1890s what W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963) would famously enunciate four decades later in Black Reconstruction (1935): that African American success and dignity were less likely to win equal citizenship than to provoke the violence necessary to keep the Negro in his place.

SEE ALSO Journalism; Lynchings; Militants; Resistance; White Supremacy



Wells, Ida B. 1892. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry.

Wells, Ida B., Frederick Douglass, I. Garland Penn, and Ferdinand L. Barnett. [1893] 1999. The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the Worlds Columbian Exposition, ed. Robert W. Rydell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1895. A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 189218931894. Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1899. Lynch Law in Georgia. Chicago pamphlet, distributed by Chicago Colored Citizens.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1900. Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death. Chicago pamphlet.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1917. The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century. Chicago: The Negro Fellowship Herald Press.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1922. The Arkansas Race Riot. Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1991. Selected works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Comp. Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press.

secondary sources

DeCosta-Willis, Miriam, ed. 1995. The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells. Boston: Beacon Press.

Grossman, James. 1997. Social Burden or Amiable Peasantry: Constructing a Place for Black Southerners. In American Exceptionalism?: U.S. Working-class Formation in an International Context. Eds. Rick Halpern and Jonathan Morris, 221243. New York: St. Martins Press.

Holt, Thomas C. 1982. The Lonely Warrior: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the Struggle for Black Leadership. In Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, eds. John Hope Franklin and August Meier, 3861. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Schechter, Patricia A. 2001. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 18801930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

James Grossman

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Wells-Barnett, Ida B. (1862-1931)

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)

Journalist, founder of the antilynching campaign


Early Life. Ida Bell Wells, the oldest of eight siblings, was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on 16 July 1862, during the Civil War. Her mother, Lizzie Wells, had been sold away from her mother at age seven and belonged to several owners before she arrived at Holly Springs to work as a cook for a carpenter named Bolling. While in Holly Springs, she met and married James Wells, who had been apprenticed to Bolling by his master, who was also his acknowledged father. After Lizzie and James Wells became free, they continued to work as cook and carpenter to Bolling.

Education. Wells was educated at Shaw University (later Rust College), a freedmans school established in Holly Springs in 1866. After her parents and three siblings died of yellow fever in 1878, sixteen-year-old Ida Wells assumed responsibility for her family, attaining a teaching position in Holly Springs by claiming to be eighteen. In 1880 she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she taught in Negro schools while attending summer-school classes at Fisk University.

Journalism and Activism. During the 1880s Wells began writing for the Negro Press Association. Soon after arriving in Memphis, she became editor of a weekly literary paper called the Evening Star and shortly thereafter became editor of another weekly, the Living Way, as well. By the end of the decade her articles for the Living Way, published under the pen name lola, were being republished in African American newspapers nationwide. She had become well known in part because of her 1884 challenge to segregation. In that year she had taken a seat in the ladies coach on a train. When the conductor informed her that she had to ride in the smoking car, where other blacks were seated, she refused to move and was removed from the train. Wells sued the railroad and won in a circuit court, but the decision was overturned in the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1887. In 1889 Wells bought a one-third interest in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, becoming editor of the paper and concentrating her efforts on criticism of inadequate funding, run-down school buildings, and poor training of teachers for Negro schools. By 1891 she had so angered the Memphis school board that they refused to renew her teaching contract. Subsequently Wells gave her full attention to journalism, becoming half owner of the Free Speech the following year.

Antilynching Campaign. In March 1892 Wells launched a one-woman crusade against lynching after three black male friends were lynched in Memphis. She lectured in Boston, New York, and other major cities, founding many antilynching societies and Negro womens clubs. Under her editorial banner, the Free Speech led the charge against the loss of liberties that African Americans had been granted during Reconstruction. She urged Memphis blacks to fight back, not with violence but with economic pressure, by boycotting city streetcars. She also encouraged her readers to move west to the newly opened Indian territories in Oklahoma, suggesting there was only one thing left that we can 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. Wells further drew the ire of Memphis whites by attacking the myth of the black rapist, asserting: Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women. Black men who were lynched were rarely accused rapists, she wrote; rather, she concluded, lynching was a racist attempt to rid a community of prosperous black men. On 27 May, while she was out of town, a mob destroyed the Free Speech office and threatened to kill her if she tried to publish the paper again. After this incident Wells moved to New York, where she became an employee and part owner of the New York Age, a weekly newspaper edited by T. Thomas Fortune. The following October the paper published Wellss feature story on lynching, which was subsequently published as a pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892).

Taking the Antilynching Campaign Abroad. Wells left the New York Age in April 1893. She took her cause to Great Britain in 1893 and again in 1894, claiming to audiences that tolerance of lynching in the United States proved that white American society was not civilized but rather was primitive and violent. British society fell under the spell of Wellss considerable rhetorical force, and her visits were instrumental to the creation of a British antilynching committee formed with the intention of swaying American opinion on racial violence. British citizens threatened a boycott on cotton from the American South if lynching did not stop. Wells also spoke out against American racism in general. After returning from her first trip abroad she went to live in Chicago, where she published a pamphlet protesting the virtual exclusion of African Americans from any meaningful role in the Worlds Columbian Exposition.

Publishing and Politics. In Chicago Wells began writing for the Chicago Conservator, an African American weekly, and the Chicago Inter Ocean, a white paper where she was the first black employee. On 27 June 1895 Wells married a widower, Ferdinand Lee Barnett, a Chicago lawyer and founder of the Conservator. While rearing Barnetts two children by his first marriage and four children of her own, Wells-Barnett traveled and turned her attention to local race relations. During that time she wrote A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 (1895). In 1898 Wells-Barnett was part of the committee that met with President William McKinley to demand government action in the case of an African American postman who had been lynched in South Carolina.

Isolation. Wells-Barnett played a major role in publicizing the horrors of lynching, but she received little attention or appreciation for her work. She wrote less after 1897 and devoted her efforts to improving race relations in Chicago. She established the Negro Fellowship League in 1910. She also became involved in the womens rights movement, founding he Alpha Suffrage Club in 1915, becoming chair of the Chicago Equal Rights League in 1915, and playing an active role in the National-American Woman Suffrage Association. She died on 25 March 1931.


Gail Bederman, Civilization, The Decline of Middle-Class Manliness, and Ida B. Wells Anti-Lynching Campaign (1892-1894), in Gender and American History Since 1890, edited by Barbara Melosh (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 207-239;

Nora Hall, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 23: American Newspaper Journalists, 1873-1900, edited by Perry Ashley (Detroit: Gale Research, 1983).

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Ida. B. Wells-Barnett

Ida. B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931), an African American journalist, was an active crusader against lynching and a champion of social and political justice for African Americans.

Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation freed all of the slaves in the Confederate states. Her father, James, was a carpenter and her mother, Elizabeth, a cook. James Wells was a hardworking, opinionated man who was actively interested in politics and in helping to provide educational opportunities for the liberated slaves and for his own eight children. He was on the board of trustees of Rust College, a freedmen's school, where his daughter Ida received a basic education. Elizabeth Wells supervised her children's religious training by escorting them to church services and by insisting that the only book that they could read on Sunday was the Bible. Young Wells was an avid reader and stated that as a result of this rule she had read through the Bible many times.

Tragedy struck the Wells family when she was about 16 years old. Her parents and some of her brothers and sisters died in a yellow fever epidemic while Wells was in another town visiting relatives. With a small legacy left by her parents, she was determined to assume the role of mothering her younger brothers and sisters. By arranging her hair in an adult style and donning a long dress, Wells was able to obtain a teaching position by convincing local school officials that she was 18 years old. A few years later, after placing the older children as apprentices, she moved to Memphis with some of the younger children to live with a relative. She was eventually able to earn a teaching position there by obtaining further education at Fisk University.

In 1884, while she was travelling by train from school, Wells was forcibly thrown out of a first-class car by the conductor because she refused to ride in the car set aside for African Americans which was nicknamed the "Jim Crow" car. She had purchased a first-class ticket and was determined not to move from her seat, but she was not able to defend herself against the conductor, who literally dragged her from her seat while some of the white passengers applauded. However, Wells, who was determined to fight for justice, sued the railroad and won her case. When the decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, Wells just became more determined to fight against racial injustice wherever she found it.

When Wells joined a literary society in Memphis, she discovered that one of their primary activities was to write essays on various subjects and read them before the members. Wells' essays on social conditions for African Americans were so well received that the society members began to encourage her to write for church publications. When she was offered a regular reporting position and part ownership of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in 1887 she eagerly accepted. The name of the newspaper was later shortened to the Free Press, and Wells eventually became its sole owner. She was not afraid to speak out against what she perceived to be injustices against African Americans, especially in the school system where she worked. She believed that the facilities and supplies available to African American children were always inferior to those offered to whites. As a consequence of her editorials about the schools, Wells lost her teaching position in 1891.

One year later, in 1892, three of Wells' friends, who were successful businessmen in Memphis, were killed and their businesses destroyed by whites who Wells accused of being jealous of their success. The Free Speech ran a scathing editorial about the murders in which Wells harshly rebuked the white community. It was probably not coincidental that she was out of town by the time local whites read her paper. An angry mob of whites broke into her newspaper office, broke up her presses, and vowed to kill her if she returned to Tennessee.

Wells became a journalist "in exile, " writing under the pen name "Iola" for the New York Age and other weekly newspapers serving the African American population. She systematically attacked lynching and other violent crimes perpetrated against African Americans. She went on speaking tours in the northeastern states and England to encourage people to speak out against lynching. She wrote well-documented pamphlets with titles such as On Lynchings, Southern Horrors, A Red Record, and Mob Rule in New Orleans.

In 1895 Wells moved to Chicago, where she married a widower named Frederick Barnett. She remained active after she was married and carried nursing children with her during her crusades. She and her husband owned a newspaper for a while, and she continued to write articles for other journals. She actively participated in efforts to gain the vote for women and simultaneously campaigned against racial bigotry within the women's movement. In 1909 she attended the organizational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and continued to work with the organization's founders during its formative years, although her association with the organization was not always peaceful. Wells-Barnett did agree with one of the major thrusts of the organization, however, and that was their desire to see the enactment of federal anti-lynching legislation. She found a settlement house in Chicago for young African American men and women, regularly taught a Bible class at the house, and also worked as a probation officer there. After her death in 1931 her contributions to the city of Chicago were acknowledged when a public housing project was named after her.

Further Reading

Wells-Barnett's autobiography, which was edited by her daughter, Alfreda M. Duster, is entitled Crusader for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1970). Several of Wells-Barnett's pamphlets have been reprinted by Arno Press in On Lynchings: Southern Horrors (1969). There is a short biography of Wells-Barnett in Mississippi Black History Makers (1984) by George A. Sewell and Margaret L. Dwight. An article entitled "The Lonely Warrior: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, " by Thomas Holt is a part of a volume edited by John Hope Franklin and August Meier, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (1982). □

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Wells-Barnett, Ida Bell

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, 1862–1931, African-American civil-rights advocate and feminist, b. Holly Springs, Miss. Born a slave, she attended a freedman's school and was orphaned at 16. She moved (1880) to Memphis, taught in black schools, attended Fisk Univ., and became an editor and writer for two weekly newspapers. In 1884 she challenged railroad segregation, ultimately losing (1887) in Tennessee's state supreme court. Becoming a part owner of and reporter for the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight (1889–94), she campaigned against the inferior education available to African Americans. In addition, beginning in 1892, following the murder of a friend by a Memphis crowd, she became famous for her antilynching crusades (see lynching). Later that year a white mob destroyed her newspaper's office and threatened to kill Wells. She subsequently moved to New York, became part owner and writer for the New York Age, and again attacked lynching. Wells was also a strong advocate for women's rights, but differed with many other feminists in her insistence on racial justice. Settling finally in Chicago, she wrote for two newspapers, married lawyer Ferdinand Lee Barnett, wrote a book on lynching (1895), created social programs for young black men and women, and worked to improve race relations in the city.

See her autobiography (1970); T. Harris, ed., The Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1991); M. DeCosta-Willis, ed., The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995); J. Jones-Royster, ed., Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900 (1996); biographies by L. O. McMurry (1999) and P. J. Giddings (2008); studies by M. I. Thompson (1990), L. S. Jimison, ed. (1994), P. A. Schechter (2001), and J. W. Davidson (2007).

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