Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula Giddings is a biography that details the journalistic activism of Ida B. Wells. Covering the incredibly impactful life of Wells is a huge undertaking but Giddings delivers the goods.
As I find with many subjects of this time, the dialog and conversations were kind of stilted, indirect, and long winded. To be clear, this is not a knock on Giddings’ writing but rather a heads up about the manner in which people seemed to communicate at the time.
Full disclosure, it took me forever to finish Ida: A Sword Among Lions. I had a hard copy, which is physically quite large and heavy for a book, so it wasn’t easy to carry around to read at random moments. I had it for a few months before I decided to actually sit down and start reading. I’m not intimidated by long books, but I didn’t quite know what to expect, so I procrastinated. When I finally started reading, I initially wasn’t into Ida: A Sword Among Lions.
Wells’ activism began around age 22 but a lot happened in her adolescence that shaped her into the fiery activist she later became. The problem was that Giddings includes what I thought to be a lot of unnecessary detail and minutiae in describing the early period of Wells’ life that took a lot of patience to read through.
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi during the Civil War. Her parents preached the importance of education and were politically active during Reconstruction. The first chapter of Ida: A Sword Among Lions delves into the background of Wells’ parents. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Boling was born and spent her early life in Virginia until her and two of her siblings were transported and sold in Mississippi. Her father, James “Jim” Wells, was born to a Black woman who was enslaved and the White man who owned her. Giddings provides what information she could about Wells’ parents but there’s far more detail about the history and formation of Holly Springs as well as historical events that took place in or near the town.
At this point in Ida: A Sword Among Lions, Wells is either not born as yet or is still a very small child. As a result, she doesn’t really feature in the story and it seemed weird at the time. It was like watching a movie and it seems like you’re waiting forever for the star to show up. There are a lot of people mentioned that played parts in the events of the time, but many of them ran together. After making the effort to push through the first chapter, it became clear that Giddings was trying to provide insight into the tumultuous environment that Wells was born into. It explains how being witness to or hearing about events as a young child affected the development of her character. The information contained in this and some of the other early chapters is incredibly important but the level of detail slows Ida: A Sword Among Lions down.
Following the sudden and unexpected death of her parents as a teen, Wells took on the responsibility of caring for and trying to keep her siblings together. Granted, she was only about 16 at the time, so this led to rumors about her motives for attempting to independently keep the remaining family intact.
At first glance, the first chapter felt rather long, but foreshadowed the racism that Wells would witness, experience and fight against within mainstream society. As well as the demeaning and contemptuous sexism she would battle from within the Black community and social organizations.
The First Campaign
In efforts to support herself and her siblings, Wells moved to Memphis, Tennessee where she worked as a teacher. At this time in Memphis and throughout other parts of the South what would come to be known as Jim Crow laws were being established. Black and White people were being made to use separate facilities. As a result, there were two first class cars on trains, one for White people and another for Black / colored people. While the amenities were physically the same, the standards and service for the Black vs. White travelers differed.
There was a big to do about women being ladies and the types of conversations and behavior they could be exposed to.
The white first class cars were primarily for White women and were referred to as “Ladies’ Cars”. Rules against coarse language / conversation, drinking, smoking, and other socially unacceptable behavior were strictly enforced. Theoretically, the same rules and expectations should have applied to the black first class cars. Instead, men were allowed to behave however they wanted in these cars and the conductors wouldn’t get involved. While Black people were not allowed in the white cars, white men could go into the black first class car to smoke, drink, and otherwise carry on. It came to be viewed as though the railroad companies were implying that only the womanhood of White women was recognized.
At the age of 22, Wells took the first steps on the path that would make her an icon. She bought a black first class ticket but when she entered the train car, a man was either drinking or drunk and people were smoking. Annoyed, Wells got up and went into the first class white car and it turned into a whole big thing. She refused to return to the black train car, argued with the conductor, and was physically removed from the train.
Wells took the case to court to stand up for herself and have it acknowledged that she purchased her ticket, was entitled to certain rights, and had been treated unfairly. She fought the case in court and initially won at the local level but the railroad company won on appeal at the state level. Adding insult to injury she was ordered to pay court costs as punishment for being considered a trouble maker.
She’d been teaching for a several years and I believe had done some writing as well. But, began writing regularly about her experience with racism and the court system which led to additional journalism opportunities. These new opportunities allowed her to write more broadly about various social injustices and issues. She was known to use her articles to criticize religious leaders, politicians, business people, social organizations, and anyone else that ran afoul of her views and beliefs. Apparently, Ms. Wells had no chill and did not shy away from leaving people p.o.’d.
Giddings details the good points of Wells’ character, chiefly her passion and conviction. But, she doesn’t gloss over her shortcomings.
As a young woman, Ms. Wells liked to keep up with the fashions of the time. She earned a modest salary as a teacher which she used to support herself and her siblings. Wells couldn’t afford some of the things that she was purchasing and made some unwise and irresponsible decisions regarding her finances.
She also seemed to be rather sensitive, impulsive, and hot-headed which led to a tendency to get into it with people in her social circle. Ladies were expected to be demure, quiet, and submissive. Wells seemed to strive to be the perfect lady but her personality made it impossible to fit the stereotype. Her persona and naivete landed her in a few situations that were considered scandalous for the time. As a young woman she was doing all of these admirable things but there’s a sense that she felt she was falling short of her ideals as a woman.
I thought it was cute that Wells’ experiences with courtship is covered. People used to write letters and send each other portraits flirting back and forth. The letters sounded incredibly boring and dry but I guess it was the thing to do back in the day. It provided a light-hearted reprieve in the book where despite the pressures of a racist and sexist society, Wells still had a chance to experience the more innocent aspects of being a young woman. Reading the little tidbits about her young romances humanized her showing she had some of the regular transition points in her life like most other people.
A Sword Among Lions goes into detail about society’s expectations of women and the role they were to play in the world. Women such as Ida B. Wells and some of her contemporaries went against the grain. There were limited professions that women could pursue and still be considered ladies. It so happened that Wells began her professional life as a teacher and then transitioned into journalism.
As with most people, when Ida B Wells started out in her career as a writer she was unsure about her capabilities. And through that insecurity began writing under a pen name. It gave her the ability to be honest without having to necessarily deal with the blowback. On the other hand, it was probably also insecurity about how her writing might be perceived. She was still relatively young in age and experience and hadn’t realized the full extent of her talent.
Ida B. Wells became active in the period following Reconstruction when the foundation was being laid for the systemized and official process of Jim Crow and inequality that became standard throughout the South. The Republican and Democratic parties were negotiating how the South would move forward. But, it was on the tail end of the Black people who had gained power during Reconstruction exercising their rights to have a say in the way forward. Wells didn’t hold any punches when it came to criticizing both of the political parties and their treatment of Black constituents as well as Black politicians that she felt weren’t living up to expectations.
Reading about this was interesting because it’s about 130 years later and some of these debates are still taking place but the political parties have switched positions. Political factions were arguing over whether Black society should vote with race or political party as their first consideration. Meaning the needs, aspirations, and other issues that required attention should be viewed first from the perspective of being a Black person. Or votes should be cast with the primary consideration being given to political party interests.
At the time, many Black people were Republican (the party of Abraham Lincoln) and the White South was largely Democrat. The Republican Party of that time compromised on issues that affected Black people but felt entitled to Black votes in return for the actions they did take, much as the Democratic Party seems to feel today. The Democratic Party of that time put in place various laws and practices to suppress Black voter registration and turnout much as the Republican Party does today.
The underlying issues of the Black community being pushed to vote along particular lines still exists to this day. There remains a question of has either party truly represented the best interests of Black people and been unwilling to sacrifice the community’s needs in the name of politics.
Ida B Wells didn’t just write about the transgressions and injustices perpetrated by White people that negatively affected Black people. She also criticized people within the Black community that she felt were under-serving, taking advantage of, or misrepresenting the interests of the Black community. She was fair with her criticisms and didn’t hesitate to discuss the shortcomings of particular people within the community. Granted it can be argued that some of her early criticisms were based on respectability politics and class.
During this time the stereotype of the Black criminal was becoming more prevalent. It had existed for quite some time but became more widely used as a means of explaining the use of violence and mistreatment of Black people in the South.
A stereotype had also existed which portrayed Black people as being hypersexual. The women as nymphomaniacs, promiscuous amoral women filled with uncontrollable lust. The men much the same but with the additional perception of being physically menacing and dangerous. These stereotypes allowed for Black women to be deemed as “un-rapeable” and considered in slavery as property that a slave owner could do with as he pleased and following emancipation assumed prostitutes. Black men on the other hand were considered savage rapists lusting after White women.
Having developed racist attitudes during slavery it was normal for the general society to see no need to recognize or respect Black personhood or individuality. Being Black and also women, Black women were not afforded the same degree of humanity given to White women. Whereas it was accepted that some White women might be ladies and some might be prostitutes. It was taken for granted that aside from elderly women who more readily fit the Mammy stereotype, all other Black women might possibly be prostitutes and it was acceptable to treat them as such. Similar logic was applied to Black men but given their physical size they were also deemed to be aggressors prone to violence.
These stereotypes played into how crimes, sexual or otherwise, were investigated, prosecuted and reported. You would have news stories where there might be a lynching or some other kind of crime committed against a Black person. And quite often in the case of men, they would be accused of rape as justification for why they were lynched or were a victim of some other act of violence.
On the flip side, obviously Black women don’t really pose as much of a physical threat so the same excuse couldn’t be used. What would end up happening when these crimes were committed against Black women is that they just wouldn’t be prosecuted or the victims and their families would be intimidated. This is actually covered in detail in the books, At The Dark End of the Street and At The Hands of Persons Unknown.
You could have a Black man and a White man each accused of raping a woman of the opposite race. In the case of a White man raping a Black woman, she would be viewed as un-rapable and nothing would come of that case. On the other hand, you would have cases where a Black man would be accused of having raped or even just engaged in sexual relations with a White woman, which the two aren’t even the same, but both would be viewed as offensive to the community and the Black man severely punished.
In the period following Reconstruction it seemed like there were all of these reports of Black people being lynched. And quite often there would be some justification offered. It wouldn’t sound right to just say, “Well, we killed him because we didn’t like his success or high self-esteem or he was educated or some other petty reason.” Mainstream newspapers and other publications would report on lynchings from what was definitely a biased perspective and offer made up stories to justify these murders.
And from these questionable occurrences, came Ida B Wells’ campaign against lynching which takes up a good amount of Ida: A Sword Among Lions. In addition to her campaign against lynching, there’s also her broader efforts to achieve equality and legal justice for Black people in general which also included parity for Black women. The catalyst that caused a transformation of sorts in Wells and her opinions were two lynchings that occured.
The first was the lynching of a Black woman who was accused of murdering a White woman with poison. But, it was later found out that the woman’s husband had murdered her and fabricated the story to cover his tracks. So an innocent Black woman lost her life for no reason and hadn’t even been allowed her right to due process.
The People’s Grocery
The second which really angered Wells was the lynching of a friend, Thomas Moss, along with two other Black men, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart. Wells was out of town at the time of the lynching but began looking into what happened when she returned. Moss and several other Black citizens owned a grocery store called the People’s Grocery in front of which a fist fight occured between a Black boy and White boy. The White boy’s father jumped into the fight and the situation escalated when adults from the People’s Grocery and a White-owned grocery store located across the street joined the fray.
The back and forth continued between the Black and White factions. Eventually, warrants were issued for the Black people believed to have been involved in the original ruckus as well as the incidents that followed. Threats of violence were made against the men of the People’s Grocery and when a sheriff and armed plain clothes deputies arrived to make arrests, shots were fired and hit some of the deputies. When the men of the People’s Grocery realized the armed men were officers of the law, they gave up their weapons and were taken into custody. The deputies survived their injuries but a mob of masked men abducted Moss, McDowell, and Stewart from the county jail and tortured and murdered them.
The White newspapers were biased in their reports on the lynching and the incidents leading up to it. They distorted facts and completely placed blame on the men of the People’s Grocery. In the aftermath of the lynching, the judge who presided over the case ordered the local Black militia to be disarmed and the People’s Grocery guarded by armed White men. Mobs of armed White men gathered at the store and began shooting indiscriminately at Black people in the area before looting the store. In time, the People’s Grocery was purchased at a substantial bargain by the owner of the White-owned grocery store located across the street.
There were other factors at play but it seemed that one driving force for the drama was jealously over the success of the Black-owned People’s Grocery as well as some of the men being perceived as thinking too highly of themselves.
The Campaign Against Lynching
After investigating these lynchings, Wells began to travel the country to research the facts of other lynchings. She found that quite often the reasons publicly stated for lynchings were inaccurate and in some cases outright fabrications. The public accusation was often that a White woman had been raped or some White person violently assaulted. But, Black people were actually being lynched for some perceived social transgression like being economically prosperous or insufficiently subservient. Even in cases where a rape or other crime had actually taken place, the accused Black person wasn’t being given due process to ensure they had actually committed the crime.
Wells wrote articles and eventually gathered her findings into a pamphlet. Her writings attracted anger from the White citizens of Memphis which resulted in her newspaper’s office being destroyed. Fortunately, she was out of town and received warnings from friends to not return to Memphis as there were lookouts at the train station planning to lynch her when she arrived. She went on to give speeches around the country and traveled to Britain to educate the public about the facts and realities of lynchings. Through her activism, Wells came into contact with many other icons of the time such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois.
After considering a few cities, Wells moved to Chicago where she met Ferdinand Barnett, an attorney and civil rights activist. The two got married and had several children. Given the time period, it’s worth noting that while Wells scaled back her travel she continued to be active outside the home and had the full support of her husband.
While Wells was no longer living in the South, she continued her campaign against lynching but also became involved with Chicago based politics and initiatives. She joined women’s social groups and pushed for equal rights for women. Quite often she experienced that there’s a push for equality for the Black community with regards to race. But, there’s an expectation for women to remain quiet with regards to gender issues. Giddings does a great job of exploring the blow back that Wells received from mainstream America and even within the Black community where some people thought she went too far.
Wells was involved with the Niagara Movement and played a role in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But, once the NAACP was formed Wells felt that she was pushed aside and her contributions were overlooked. Ida B. Wells had crisscrossed the country at great personal risk to research and gather information about lynchings. But, when the smoke cleared and acknowledgments were distributed, it seemed like attempts were made to hide her involvement.
Ida B. Wells also joined several Women’s Clubs and worked on various campaigns but even within those groups, she had to contend with racism. Organizations in both the civil and women’s rights movements welcomed her research, writing, and organizing skills when it was convenient. But, were quick to distance themselves when it served their purposes.
Ida B. Wells passed away in the 1930s at the age of 68, decades before what came to be known as the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s to the early ‘70s. Yet, within the life of this one woman, you really have the blueprint for womanism. The fact that Black women not only face injustice, hardship, limitations, and difficulties due to their race. But, they also face additional issues due to their gender. And while those two things function independently, they also combine to create a cluster of additional problems.
Ida: A Sword Among Lions is an amazing book. It took me a long time to get through and I do mean a long time. I want to say it was like four months of picking it up and putting it back down while also reading other books. You really have to have some patience and understand that it’s going to start out a bit slow. But, the payoff for hanging in there is definitely worth it because once Ida B. Wells has her awakening and becomes fully invested in activism the book really takes off. Those slow early chapters are important for laying the groundwork of explaining how she came to be the woman that is an icon.
Ida B. Wells was a remarkable woman and Paula J Giddings does an amazing job of telling her story. After reading Ida: A Sword Among Lions and going back to skim through to refresh my memory for this review I really came to appreciate the importance of those early chapters that initially gave me a hard time. To be quite honest some of them could have probably been trimmed down a little bit because I didn’t need all that detail. But overall Ida: A Sword Among Lions is incredibly solid and I highly recommend it.
You get a lot of insight into Ida B Wells but there’s also a lot of information contained in Ida: A Sword Among Lions that explains the origins of institutions such as the Niagara Movement, NAACP, etc. You also learn little tidbits about other people that were active at this time. Big names such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois but also less well-known people through glimpses into their activities and backgrounds.
Ida: A Sword Among Lions is the story of Ida B Wells. But, it’s also a really detailed history of this period in America. Being able to tie all of that information together in one book is really an amazing feat. I can’t recommend it enough. Ida: A Sword Among Lions is definitely the book for you to read if you’re curious about Ida B. Wells, the history of lynching in America, Reconstruction, the development of Jim Crow laws, the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement, Chicago politics, etc.
You can’t go wrong reading Ida: A Sword Among Lions. You just need a little bit of patience, or at least I did.
- At The Hands of Persons Unknown [Book Review]
- At The Dark End of the Street [Book Review]
- The National Memorial for Peace and Justice [Place]
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