Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1862–1931

views updated Jun 08 2018

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

Wells-Barnett, Ida B.

views updated May 29 2018

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

BORN: July 16, 1862 • Holly Springs, Mississippi

DIED: March 25, 1931 • Chicago, Illinois

Journalist; political activist

Ida B. Wells-Barnett began life as a slave. As a young woman, she was forcefully removed from a train after refusing to give up her seat to a white man. This prompted her to begin a career in journalism that would eventually make her the most outspoken opponent of lynching (putting a person to death, without a trial and usually by hanging).

"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."

Born into slavery

Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, to slave parents. Six months after her birth, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) signed the Emancipation Proclamation, giving all slaves their freedom. Wells's father was a carpenter who was active in politics and became interested in helping educate the freed slaves, including his own seven children. Wells and her siblings received basic academic and religious training through school and church.

When she was just sixteen years old, Wells lost her parents and one brother in a yellow fever epidemic that swept through Holly Springs in 1878. (Yellow fever is a deadly virus transmitted by mosquitoes.) Not quite finished with her high-school education, Wells now had to find a way to care for her five younger brothers and sisters. By pinning up her hair and wearing a long dress, Wells was able to convince the superintendent of a school five miles from home that she was eighteen. She was hired as a teacher, a position that paid $25 a month. During the week, she lived near the school while her siblings stayed with various people in their hometown. On weekends, Wells would return home to care for the children and do all the tasks required for keeping a large family, such as cooking and doing laundry.

In 1882, Wells and her two sisters moved to Memphis, Tennessee, leaving behind their brothers to work as carpenter's apprentices (students). Wells found another teaching job in one of the city's all–African American schools. During the summer, she took classes at Fisk University in Nashville. She had also attended Rust University in Holly Springs for a short time, but never earned a degree from either institution.

Stands up for her rights

In 1884, Wells bought a first-class train ticket to Nashville, Tennessee. Despite having paid for a ticket that would allow her to travel in the first-class car, once onboard, Wells was instructed to move to the back of the train, where African Americans were forced to ride. She refused, and as the conductor was forcibly trying to remove her, Wells bit his hand. It took the help of a baggage handler to get Wells out of the train car and into the back. She rode to the next stop, where she left the train and headed back to Memphis.

Wells filed a lawsuit against the railroad and won a settlement of $500. In 1887, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the ruling on the grounds that she had intended only to cause difficulty for the railroad company. The final decision was a blow to Wells's belief that justice would win out. She did not let her discouragement stop her from standing up for what she believed was right. Soon the name "Iola" was appearing in African American newspapers. Iola was the name Wells used when she wrote about politics and race issues in the South. In 1887, less than one year after she began writing under an assumed name, the National Afro-American Press named her the most prominent (outstanding) correspondent for the American black press. She was also elected as the assistant secretary of the organization.

Buys a newspaper

In 1891, Wells became co-owner of an African American newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. She quickly became the newspaper's editor. Her duties included writing articles, hiring correspondents, and increasing the paper's subscription base. She continued to teach during the school year.

Wells's teaching career came to an abrupt halt when she wrote and published an article criticizing Memphis's school system. The federal law at the time made it a crime for African Americans not to have the same rights as whites, but it upheld the belief that the two races should remain segregated (separated). This concept was known as "separate-but-equal." In reality, African Americans were still not treated equally. Although they had their own restaurants and public places, such facilities were never as good as those reserved for white patrons. This separate-but-equal philosophy infiltrated the South's school systems, and it suffered from the same inequalities. Although African American children were being taught in classrooms, their teachers were paid less, their textbooks were not as good as those used in white classrooms, and their schools received only a small percentage of the funding white schools received.

The school board knew Wells had written the article, even though she did not include a byline (indication of author). Wells was relieved of her duties as teacher, and her time was now freed and completely dedicated to improving the conditions of her race.

The year 1892 was a crucial one for Wells. Three people, one a good friend of Wells, were lynched while defending their grocery store from white attackers who wanted to put the store out of business. In the scuffle, one of the owners shot one of the attackers. A gang of white men seeking vengeance came after the three men and hanged them all. An outraged Wells criticized the event in a series of articles in which she specifically discussed the evils of lynching. She argued that the cruel punishment was not used to keep criminals in line but to enforce white supremacy (the idea that whites were superior to African Americans). She encouraged African Americans to boycott (not shop at) all white businesses, and even to leave town if need be. While visiting New York City shortly after her editorials went to press, a white mob ransacked and destroyed her newspaper office and told her they would kill her if she ever returned.

A new job, a continuing mission

Wells knew it was too dangerous to return to Memphis, so she stayed in New York and took a job as a writer at a magazine called Age. One of her first stories detailed several dozen recent lynchings, including names of the murderers, dates, and locations. The article was published at a good time. Historians estimate that 233 lynchings took place between 1880 and 1884; 381 from 1885 to 1889. These figures are probably much lower than the actual number of lynchings that took place. Many people never reported lynchings for fear of retaliation from whites.

Although the issue in which Wells's article was published sold ten thousand copies, its readers were primarily African American, and they already knew the horror of lynching. Wells knew she had to reach a white audience if she was to get help in putting an end to the barbaric act that took the lives of so many African Americans.

In an effort to bring her message to people who could help, Wells went on a tour of Europe and the British Isles. While there, she founded the National Afro-American Council and served as chairman of its Anti-Lynching Bureau. With the help of reformers in England, her cause was reported in American newspapers. Unfortunately, those same papers also attacked Wells as a nasty woman who spread lies. Conservative whites disliked her, but so did wealthy African Americans, who saw her as a threat to their security. They enjoyed the life of upper-class society, and to be associated with Wells, even if only by skin color, was not something they wanted.

Wells returned home in 1893 and moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she began working for an African American newspaper called the Conservator. That same year, she joined forces with another reformer, abolitionist (antislavery activist) Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), and wrote a pamphlet titled "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not Represented in the World's Columbian Exposition." Ten thousand copies of the pamphlet were distributed at the Chicago World's Fair, an event that changed the cultural and social landscape of America forever.

Marries and retires, but not really

In 1895, Wells married lawyer Ferdinand Barnett, who happened to also be her editor. Her plan was to go into retirement, but that plan fell through. She did cut back on the amount of international travel she did to speak publicly at conventions, but that same year, Wells-Barnett published a detailed account of all the lynchings she could find information on in a book titled A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892–1893–1894. Wells-Barnett and her husband eventually had four children, and she dedicated her time to raising her family while not losing sight of the importance of her cause.

Wells-Barnett encouraged other African Americans to become active in their local regions. She herself helped establish the first kindergarten in the African American district of Chicago. She also joined Jane Addams (1860–1935; see entry), founder of the famous Hull-House Settlement (an early social-services community), in successfully protesting Chicago's plan to segregate its public schools. Wells-Barnett continued to denounce discrimination publicly. In the early 1900s, she exposed the segregationist policies of the popular Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), causing a handful of wealthy donors to withdraw their financial support of the group. They channeled their money instead into the Negro Fellowship Reading Room and Social Center.

Helps establish the NAACP

Wells-Barnett worked tirelessly for three years with other African American reformers and activists to help found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organization was formally established in 1909 with the goal of ensuring the political, educational, social, and economic equality of all African Americans. Wells-Barnett resigned her membership not long after the formation of the NAACP, however, because she believed the group was not militant (radical) enough. African American activists were basically separated into two groups during those days. One group favored accommodation, which meant they made the best of whatever situation they found themselves in and did not rally for more of anything—rights, money, social equality. The other group believed the only way to attain equality was through insisting on truly equal rights; Wells-Barnett sided with this group.

Her last years

Wells-Barnett spent the last two decades of her life involved in community organization and social work in Chicago. She made herself available to do what she believed needed to be done. For instance, in 1913, she worked as an adult probation officer, a duty she remained committed to for three years. Also in 1913, she formed the first African American women's suffrage (right to vote) organization, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago. She wrote her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, in 1928. In 1930, she unsuccessfully ran for the Illinois state legislature, becoming the first African American woman ever to run for public office.

Wells-Barnett would not live to see the end of lynching as a common southern occurrence. It would be 1968 before regular lynchings would gradually stop. According to Robert Zangrando's article "About Lynching," 1882 was the first year any sort of reliable lynching statistics were kept. Between 1882 and 1968, nearly 5,000 people—3,446 of them African American men, women, and children—were lynched. Mississippi had the most lynchings (539 African American victims, 42 white). Well into the twentieth century, lynchings were social events. White families would bring their children to watch the torture and hanging of victims. Spectators watched, fascinated, as victims were dismembered (had body parts cut off), soaked in oil and set on fire alive, then hanged. Railroads sold tickets to lynchings. Newspapers often carried notices of planned executions so townspeople could be sure to put the event on their calendars.

Wells-Barnett died in Chicago of uremia (toxins in the bloodstream due to kidney disease) on March 25, 1931. She was sixty-nine years old. A low-income housing project was built in Chicago in 1941 and named after her. In 1988, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. A commemorative stamp bearing her likeness was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1990.

For More Information


Als, Hilton, et al. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.

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

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

Welch, Catherine. Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Powerhouse with a Pen. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2000.

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


Baker, Lee D. "Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Passion for Justice." Duke University. http://www.duke.edu/~ldbaker/classes/AAIH/caai/ibwells/ibwbkgrd.html (accessed on September 6, 2006).

Gado, Mark. "Lynchings in America." Crime Library.http://www.crimelibrary.com/classics2/carnival/ (accessed on September 6, 2006).

"Ida B. Wells-Barnett." AfricaWithin.com.http://www.africawithin.com/bios/ida_wells.htm (accessed on September 6, 2006).

Library of Congress. "The Progress of a People: Ida B. Wells-Barnett." African American Perspectives.http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aap/idawells.html (accessed on September 6, 2006).

Long Island University. "Lynchings in America." B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library of the C. W. Post Campus.http://www.liu.edu/CWIS/CWP/library/african/2000/lynching.htm (accessed on September 6, 2006).

Naill, Katherine. "Ida B. Wells-Barnett 'Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases."' University of Arkansas.http://www.uark.edu/depts/comminfo/women/wells.htm (accessed on September 6, 2006).

PBS. "Ida B. Wells." The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_people_wells.html (accessed on September 6, 2006).

Without Sanctuary.http://withoutsanctuary.org/ (accessed on September 6, 2006).

Zangrando, Robert L. "About Lynching." University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Modern American Poetry.http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/lynching/lynching.htm (accessed on September 6, 2006).

Wells-Barnett, Ida B.

views updated May 21 2018

Wells-Barnett, Ida B.

July 6, 1862
March 25, 1931

The journalist and civil rights activist Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the first of eight children of Jim and Elizabeth Wells. Her father was a slavethe son of his master and a slave womanand worked as a carpenter on a plantation. There he met his future wife, who served as a cook. After emancipation, Jim Wells was active in local Reconstruction politics.

Young Ida Wells received her early education in the grammar school of Shaw University (now Rust College) in Holly Springs, where her father served on the original board of trustees. Her schooling was halted, however, when a yellow fever epidemic claimed the lives of both her parents in 1878 and she assumed responsibility for her siblings. The next year, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with an aunt, and Ida found work as a teacher. She later studied at Fisk University and Lemoyne Institute.

A turning point in Wells's life occurred on May 4, 1884. While riding a train to a teaching assignment, she was asked to leave her seat and move to a segregated car. Wells refused, and she was physically ejected from the railway car. She sued the railroad, and though she was awarded $500 by a lower court, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision in 1887. In the same year, she

launched her career in journalism, writing of her experiences in an African-American weekly called the Living Way. In 1892 she became the co-owner of a small black newspaper in Memphis, the Free Speech. Her articles on the injustices faced by southern blacks, written under the pen name "Iola," were reprinted in a number of black newspapers, including the New York Age, the Detroit Plain-Dealer, and the Indianapolis Freeman.

In March 1892, the lynching of three young black businessmen, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Steward, in a suburb of Memphis focused Wells's attention on the pressing need to address the increasing prevalence of this terrible crime in the post-Reconstruction South. Her approach was characteristically forthright. She argued that though most lynchings were fueled by accusations of rape, they actually were prompted by economic competition between whites and blacks. Wells infuriated most whites by asserting that many sexual liaisons between black men and white women were not rape but mutually consensual.

She urged African Americans in Memphis to move to the West (where, presumably, conditions were more favorable) and to boycott segregated streetcars and discriminatory merchants. Her challenges to the prevailing racial orthodoxy of the South were met by mob violence, and in May 1892, while she was out of town, the offices of the Free Speech were destroyed by an angry throng of whites.

Wells then began to work for the New York Age, and she continued to write extensively on lynching and other African-American issues. She penned exposés of southern injustice and decried the situation before European audiences in 1893 and 1894. During these European tours, she criticized some white American supporters of black causes for their halfhearted opposition to lynching. Wells's most extended treatment of the subject, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, appeared in 1895. This was the first serious statistical study of lynchings in the post-Emancipation South. She continued this work for the rest of her life. Some of her more widely read articles in this area include "Lynching and the Excuse for It" (1901) and "Our Country's Lynching Record" (1913). Perhaps her greatest effort in this arena was her tireless campaign for national anti-lynching legislation. In 1901 she met with President William McKinley to convince him of the importance of such legislation. Her appeal was to no avail.

Another issue that provoked Wells's ire was the decision not to permit an African-American pavilion at the 1893 World's Fair. Wells, with the financial support of Frederick Douglass, among others, published a widely circulated booklet entitled The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Exposition (1893).

In 1895 Wells married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a lawyer and editor from Chicago who was appointed assistant state attorney for Cook County in 1896. The couple had four children, and Chicago would remain their home for the rest of their lives. While Wells-Barnett was a devoted mother and homemaker, her political and reform activities were unceasing. She served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council from 1898 to 1902 and headed its Antilynching Speakers Bureau. She played an important role in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, and in 1910 she founded the Negro Fellowship League, which provided housing and employment for black male migrants. The Barnetts challenged restrictive housing covenants when they moved to the all-white East Side of Chicago around 1910. Her concern for the welfare of Chicago's black community led Wells Barnett to become, in 1913, the first black woman probation officer in the nation. She lost her appointment in 1916, when a new city administration came to power.

Wells-Barnett was also active in the fight for women's suffrage. In 1913 she organized the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first black women's suffrage club in Illinois. That year, and again in 1918, she marched with suffragists in Washington, D.C. On the former occasion she insisted on marching with the Illinois contingent, integrating it over the objection of many white women marchers.

Wells-Barnett's militant opposition to the southern status quo placed her at odds with Booker T. Washington and his strategy of accommodationism. She was much more sympathetic to the ideology of W. E. B. Du Bois, and in 1906 she attended the founding meeting of the Niagara Movement. She was also a member of the original Executive Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. She was, however, uneasy about the integrated hierarchy at the organization, believing that their public stance was too tempered, and she ceased active participation in 1912.

In 1916 Wells-Barnett began an affiliation with Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). In December 1918, at a UNIA meeting in New York, Wells-Barnett was chosen, along with A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), to represent the organization as a delegate to the upcoming Versailles Conference. Both representatives were repeatedly denied U.S. State Department clearance, however, so they never attended the meeting. Wells-Barnett did speak on behalf of the UNIA at Bethel AME Church in Baltimore at the end of December 1918, but her continued affiliation with the organization after this was less public.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

"Our country's national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an 'unwritten law' that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal."

"lynch law in america," the arena 23.1 (january 1900): 15-24.

In the last decades of her life, Wells-Barnett continued to write about racial issues and American injustice. The East St. Louis race riot of July 1917 and the Chicago riot of July and August 1919 provided the impetus for impassioned denunciations of the treatment of African Americans in the United States. She wrote The Arkansas Race Riot in 1922 in response to the accusation of murder aimed at several black farmers, an accusation that was said to have instigated the disturbance. Most of her later work targeted social and political issues in Chicago. In 1930, Wells-Barnett ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois.

Ida Wells-Barnett died on March 25, 1931. In 1941 the Chicago Housing Authority named one of its first low-rent housing developments the Ida B. Wells Homes. In 1990 the U.S. Postal Service issued an Ida B. Wells stamp.

See also Abolition; Douglass, Frederick; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Garvey, Marcus; Journalism; Lynching; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Niagara Movement; Randolph, Asa Philip; Universal Negro Improvement Association; Washington, Booker T.


Burt, Olive W. Black Women of Valor. New York: J. Messner, 1974.

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

Royster, Jacqueline Jones, ed. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: the Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 18921900. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

Sterling, Dorothy. Black Foremothers. Old Westbury, N.Y.:Feminist Press, 1979.

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

margaret l. dwightbarrett (1996)
Updated bibliography

Wells-Barnett, Ida B.

views updated May 17 2018

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

Wells-Barnett, Ida Bell

views updated May 23 2018


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.

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

views updated May 11 2018

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).

Wells-Barnett, Ida B.

views updated May 17 2018


Born 16 July 1862, Holly Springs, Mississippi; died 25 March 1931, Chicago, Illinois

Wrote under Ida B. Wells

Daughter of Jim and Lizzie Warrenton Wells; married Ferdinand Barnett, 1896; children: four

Ida B. Wells was born a slave, but her father was a skilled carpenter and she grew up in a house he had built and owned. Both of her parents emphasized the importance of education and were very active in civic and religious activities. The oldest of eight children, Wells attended Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, a school for blacks that extended down to the primary grades. Her childhood ended in 1878 when an epidemic of yellow fever decimated Holly Springs, killing her parents and youngest brother. Wells was determined to keep the remaining children together, so she became a schoolteacher.

About five years later, Wells moved to Memphis, where she taught in a rural school while studying for the city's teacher's examinations. In May 1884 she was riding the train to work when the conductor told her to leave her seat and ride in the smoking car. Wells refused. When the conductor and baggage man tried to force her to move, she got off the train and sued the railroad. The law required separate but equal accommodations, and Wells did not consider the smoking car equal to the first-class car. The local court agreed and awarded her $500 in damages, but on appeal the Supreme Court of Tennessee supported the railroad's claim that the smoking car was acceptable for blacks. Wells was furious and dismayed to discover that the law was not on the side of justice.

In 1887 Wells wrote about this formative experience for a church paper. Readers and editors asked for more, and soon she was writing for a variety of church papers and secular black newspapers. She was then offered the editorship and part-owner-ship of a Memphis paper, the Free Speech and Headlight, which she shortened to Free Speech. In 1891 she wrote a series of articles criticizing the conditions in Memphis' segregated schools for blacks. Not surprisingly, the Memphis Board of Education responded by firing her from her teaching position. Wells was now a full-time journalist.

On 9 March 1892, three young black businessmen were lynched. They were owners of a Memphis grocery store, friends of Wells, and too independent and successful to be safe in a time of increasing racism. In response to their deaths, Free Speech called on Memphis blacks to stop spending money in white businesses, boycott the streetcars, and move west to a place where the laws would protect them. Hundreds of people—including two church congregations—left Memphis, and the superintendent and treasurer of the City Railway Company begged Wells to call off the boycott. Instead, she renewed her campaign against lynching.

After a fiery editorial appeared in Free Speech, a mob destroyed Wells' press in May 1892. She escaped only because she happened to be in Philadelphia reporting on a conference. Knowing that her life was in danger if she returned to the South, she began to write for the New York Age and tried to rally Northerners against lynching. Few were interested until Wells went abroad with her stories of American barbarism. In 1893 and again in 1894, Wells toured England, Scotland, and Wales, telling interested audiences about America's failure to live up to its promise of justice, liberty, and equality for all. She sent home articles that were published in the Chicago Inter-Ocean and other papers. In 1895 she published A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894. Wells' careful documentation and appeal to international opinion helped turn white popular opinion against lynchings and decrease the lynching rate.

Wells also remained concerned about the broader scope of American racism. She wrote The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition—The Afro-American's Contribution to Columbian Literature (1893), denouncing the exclusion of all individual blacks and black groups from Chicago's great World's Fair. Wells had been very impressed with the English women's civic clubs that sponsored her lecture tours. After her return she helped found the first black women's clubs, which were devoted to community improvement and local and national activism.

In 1896 Wells married Ferdinand Barnett, an activist lawyer/journalist and a widower with two children. After the birth of their second child, she gave up newspaper work until her youngest child was eight and able to go to school by herself. She continued, however, to fight for racial justice. In 1901 the family moved into a white neighborhood. In 1910 Wells-Barnett founded the Negro Fellowship League, which was roughly modeled after Jane Addams' Hull House but located in the roughest part of Chicago. Whenever a race riot happened anywhere in the country, she would promptly go to the location, gather facts, and publish her reports in black newspapers. She remained active in black women's clubs, organized the first black women's suffrage club, and urged black men to use the power of the vote. As her children grew older, she returned to lecturing, and she always used her pen to document injustices. In 1928 she recorded the events of her life in Crusade for Freedom: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (published 1970). Despite increasing ill health, she kept active until a final illness of four days.

Other Works:

Lynch Law in Georgia (1899). To the Members of the Anti-Lynching Bureau (1902). On Lynchings (1969). Lynching and Rape (1977). Selected Works of Ida B. Wells (1991). The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995). Southern Horrors and Other Writings (1997).


Bederman, G., Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (1995). Davidson, S., Getting the Real Story (1992). Lisandrelli, E., Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1998). McMurray, L., To Keep the Waters Troubled (1998). Miller, E. M., The Other Construction: Where Violence and Womanhood Meet in the Writings of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Angelina Gimké Weld, and Nella Larsen (1999). Sterling, D., Black Foremothers (1988). Thompson, M., Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1990). Townes, E., Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope (1993).

Reference works:

African-American Orators: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook (1996). African-American Women: A Biographical Dictionary (1993). Black Women in America (1993). DLB 23. NAW.

Other references:

Black Scholar (1994). Radical History Review (1992). Sage (1991).


Ida. B. Wells-Barnett

views updated Jun 27 2018

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). □