Ida B. Wells-Barnett
July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931
Notable: Journalist & Activist
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi during the Civil War, the first child of Lizzie and James Wells. When the war ended, her father supported the family by working as a carpenter. Having learned this trade enabled James to avoid the financially exploitative system of sharecropping that doomed many other Black people to poverty.
To achieve further progress Wells’ parents learned how to read. They saw to it that their children also received an education. The Wells’ also tried to help other newly freed people progress by joining an aid society, becoming politically active, and helping to establish the HBCU Shaw University which is now Rust College.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 1878 when a yellow fever epidemic claimed the lives of Wells’ parents and her infant brother. Despite being now orphaned at sixteen, Wells assumed primary responsibility for raising her siblings and keeping them together as best as possible. Wells temporarily dropped out of school and found work nearby as a teacher.
With help from her grandmother, Wells began balancing her job with returning to school, teaching Sunday school, and completing household chores. But when Wells’ grandmother died in 1881, she and her siblings relocated to Memphis, Tennessee to live with an aunt. Wells once again found work as a teacher and took classes in Nashville at Fisk University during the summers.
Wells took numerous train rides between Memphis, Nashville, and Holly Springs. During one trip in 1884, she purchased a first-class ticket and took a seat in the ladies’ first-class car. This was in the period following Reconstruction when Jim Crow segregation was still taking shape.
A train conductor approached Wells and ordered her to move to the train’s colored section. She refused to comply as she had paid a premium price for a first-class ticket and thus wanted the accommodations she purchased. Wells bit the conductor on his hand when he attempted to forcibly remove her from the seat. Two other men joined the conductor and helped to drag Wells off the train.
Some years earlier, Wells was expelled from school after a dispute with the school’s administration. Here she once again stood up to authority by filing a lawsuit against the train company. She had been asked to leave her seat and was then thrown off the train when she refused despite having paid for a first-class ticket. Wells won the first case at the local level and was awarded $500 but the verdict was overturned on appeal.
Up to this point, Wells had mostly just taken a stand in instances where she faced injustice. That changed in the 1890s when Wells began writing about the unfair and unequal treatment of Black people in the South under the pen name “Iola”. She criticized the inadequate educational resources that were provided for Black children. Wells was eventually fired from her teaching position for these criticisms. In response, she bought ownership stakes in newspapers and more fully turned her attention to journalism.
A friend, Thomas Moss, opened the People’s Grocery in Memphis with two of his associates. The store was quite successful and sparked jealousy in a local White grocer who was angered by this group of Black men being prosperous. Tensions mounted and after multiple run-ins a few White men were shot when they arrived to attack the store. Moss and his two friends were arrested and jailed but a White mob stormed the jail and lynched them before they made it to trial. This would be the catalyst for Wells launching a campaign against lynching.
Wells condemned the lynching of the owners of the People’s Grocery. Extrajudicial executions of Black men were often explained away as communities seeking vigilante justice against rapists. This explanation did not apply to the lynching of these three men. Wells began to suspect that this explanation likely also didn’t apply to many other lynchings. She journeyed through the South covertly comparing the publicly stated reason for a Black person being lynched with the version of events she gathered.
In some instances, it was a similar situation of a Black person achieving success causing jealousy and covetousness within the White population. In other situations where there was a sexual aspect, there had been a consensual sexual interaction between a Black male and a White female. She then published a series of articles about her findings which sparked a tremendous uproar.
Wells was in New York City when a White mob attacked and destroyed the offices of her newspaper and its contents. Threats were made that she would be hurt or even murdered if she returned to Memphis. Fearing for her safety, friends convinced Wells to remain in the North and she eventually settled in Chicago, Illinois.
Undeterred, Wells continued her work and proceeded to publish additional anti-lynching articles and books. As an activist, Wells didn’t just focus on local or regional issues but broader national injustices affecting the Black community. She joined a boycott of the Chicago World’s Fair due to its inaccurate depictions of Black people. And she arguably became one of the first womanists advocating for women’s rights and suffrage while also calling out racism within the mainstream suffragist movement. Wells was also a founding member of both the National Association of Colored Women’s Club (NACW) and the NAACP.
In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand Barnett, a very prominent Black lawyer. Barnett was a widower with two children from his previous marriage and he and Wells had an additional four children. Wells and Barnett were very supportive of each other’s work. Despite the time, Wells continued to travel to give speeches and organize.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett died of kidney disease on March 25th, 1931 at the age of 68.
- Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Ida B. Wells.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 6, 2021. https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/ida-b-wells.
- Boomer, Lee. 2022. “Life Story: Ida B. Wells.” Women & the American Story. New-York Historical Society Museum & Library. August 3, 2022. https://wams.nyhistory.org/modernizing-america/fighting-for-social-reform/ida-b-wells/.
- “Ida B Wells-Barnett.” n.d. Archives of Women’s Political Communication. Iowa State University of Science and Technology. Accessed February 18, 2023. https://awpc.cattcenter.iastate.edu/directory/ida-b-wells/.
- “Ida B. Wells Barnett.” n.d. Black Women’s Suffrage. Digital Public Library of America. Accessed February 18, 2023. https://blackwomenssuffrage.dp.la/key-figures/idaBWellsBarnett.
- “Ida B. Wells.” n.d. U.S. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed February 18, 2023. https://www.nps.gov/people/idabwells.htm.
- Norwood, Arlisha R. 2017. “Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ida-b-wells-barnett.
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