Today’s subject is Ida B. Wells Barnett
Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice
by Jennifer McBride
Ida B. Wells has been described as a crusader for justice, and as a defender of democracy. Wells was characterized as a militant and uncompromising leader for her efforts to abolish lynching and establish racial equality. Wells challenged segregation decades before Rosa Parks, ran for Congress and attended suffrage meetings with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams, yet most of her efforts are largely unknown due to the fact that she is African American and female.
Ida B. Wells was born July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, during the second year of the Civil War (Sterling 61). Her parents, James and Elizabeth Wells, were slaves, and thus Wells, a woman who devoted her life to promoting racial equality, was born a slave. It was from her parents that Wells developed an interest in politics and her unwavering dedication to achieving set goals. After emancipation, Jim Wells became heavily involved in politics. He was a member of the Loyal League (a local black political organization), he attended public “speakings” on the steps of the courthouse, and campaigned for local black political candidates (Sterling 65). Jim Wells’ fervent interest in racial justice and political activism no doubt inspired his daughter’s later interest in these same issues. Elizabeth Wells was a religious woman and a strict disciplinarian who dictated a strong work ethic. Both Jim and Elizabeth Wells emphasized the importance of education. After the Civil War, 90% of blacks were illiterate. Emancipation brought about the legalization of Negro education, and shortly thereafter, Negro schools were established throughout the south. Shaw University was established in Holly Springs in 1866 to provide education for the large, rural black community of the area (Duster 9). Wells along with her siblings and her mother (who wanted to learn to read the bible) attended Shaw University. She notes in her autobiography that “our job was to go to school and learn all we could” (Duster 9). During her years at Shaw, Wells developed an intense love of words. She reportedly read every book in the school library, from the novels of Louisa May Alcott and Charles Dickens to the Oliver Optic stores, a series of popular books for boys (Sterling 65). Early on in her education, Wells discovered a bias. At Shaw she learned mainly European history, and Wells notes in her autobiography that “I had read the bible and Shakespeare through, but I had never read a Negro book or anything about Negroes” (Duster 22).
In 1878, Wells’ life changed forever, as a yellow fever epidemic swept through the region, claiming the lives of both her parents and a younger sibling (Sterling 66). Wells was visiting her grandmother’s farm when the epidemic hit, and she was urged to remain in the country until the epidemic subsided. However, her devotion to her family prompted her to return home despite the warnings of doctors. In her autobiography Wells recalls her feelings at the time of the tragedy, “the conviction grew within me that I ought to be with them… I am going home. I am the oldest of seven living children. There’s nobody but me to look after them now” (Duster 12). Determined to keep the family together, Wells refused all attempts at splitting up her remaining siblings. Instead, she insisted on caring for her five siblings, despite the fact that she was 16, unemployed and poor. At the urging of the local Masonic lodge where her father was a member, she applied for a teaching position in the country. She adjusted her appearance so as to look older than her mere 16 years. She passed the qualifying examine and was given a position six miles away. Friends and relatives stayed with the Wells children during the week when Ida was away at school. In her autobiography, Wells describes the burden of her dual role and caretaker and provider, “I came home every Friday afternoon, riding the six miles on the back of a big mule. I spent Saturday and Sunday washing and ironing and cooking for the children and went back to my country school on Sunday afternoon” (Duster 17).
In 1883, Wells moved 40 miles north to Memphis at the urging of her aunt Fannie, who promised ample opportunity for employment and offered to care for Wells’ two younger sisters (Duster xvi). Wells accepted the offer, and shortly after her arrival in Memphis, she found employment at a school in Woodstock, Tennessee, about 10 miles outside the city. During her summer vacations, Wells took teachers’ training courses at Fisk University and at Lemoyne Institute. By the fall of 1884 she had qualified to teach in the city schools and was assigned a first grade class where she taught for seven years(Sterling 67).
Wells’ career as a writer was sparked by an incident that occurred on May 4, 1884. On this day, while riding a train back to her job in Woodstock, Wells was asked by the conductor to move from her seat in the ladies’ car to the front of the train into the smoking car. When she refused, the conductor attempted to physically remove her from her seat. It took three men to remove Wells from her seat, and rather than move to the smoking car, she got off at the next stop to the cheers of the white passengers on the train (Duster 18). When Wells got back to Memphis, she immediately hired a lawyer to bring suit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. The court returned a verdict in favor of Wells and awarded her $500 in damages. The judge presiding over the trial stated the railroad company violated the separate but equal clause by forcing blacks to ride in smoking car that was separate but not first class, as Wells had paid for. The railroad appealed the verdict and in 1887, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court, and Wells was ordered to pay court costs. The was the first case of its kind in the south and it generated tremendous public interest. Thrilled with her victory and eager to share her story, Wells wrote an article for The Living Way, a black church weekly. Her article was so well received that the editor of The Living Way asked for additional contributions. As a result, Wells began a weekly column entitled “Iola.” Wells described her purpose in writing Iola as “I had an instinctive feeling that the people who have little or no school training should have something coming into their homes weekly which dealt with their problems in a simple, helpful way… so I wrote in a plain, common-sense way on the things that concerned our people (Duster 23-24). By 1886, Wells’ articles were appearing in prominent black newspapers across the nation. As she traveled through Tennessee and witnessed the deplorable living conditions of blacks, her voice grew bolder and she began to attacking larger issues of discrimination and inequality, such as poverty and lack of educational opportunities. In 1889 Wells was offered an editorship of a small Memphis newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight and became part-owner (Sterling 75). Wells’ flaming editorials condemned white establishments for their continual oppression of blacks. In 1891 she was fired from her teaching position because of her editorials criticizing the Memphis School Board of Education for conditions in “separate” colored schools (Duster 37).
During the late 1800′s, violence against blacks increased at alarming rates and mob rule was becoming the norm. The KKK established a “reign of terror,” murdering and lynching innocent blacks, while most southern whites looked the other way. In 1892, Ida B. Wells was again faced with tragedy in what became known as the “Lynching at the Curve.” In March 1892, three close friends of Wells, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, opened the People’s Grocery Company. The store was located directly across the street from a white-owned grocery store, which had hitherto maintained a monopoly on, what Wells described as, “the trade of this thickly populated colored suburb” (Duster 48). Angered over the loss of business, a white mob gathered to run the black grocers out of town. Warned about the encroaching mob, the black men armed themselves, and in the ensuing confrontation, wounded three white men who had invaded the store. The next day, white newspapers printed exaggerated accounts of the previous day’s events, claiming that “Negro desperadoes” had shot white men (Sterling 78). These sensationalized depiction’s gave rise to another mob that stormed the jail cells of the three black men and killed them. Wells responded to this atrocious act of violence by writing an editorial in the Free Speech urging blacks to leave Memphis. She wrote “There is therefore only one thing left to 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.” In two month’s time, six thousand black people left Memphis, many relocating to the Oklahoma Territory. Those who remained, including Wells, organized boycotts of white owned businesses in response to the lynchings (Sterling 80). The Lynching at the Curve marked the beginning of Wells’ anti-lynching campaign. She continued to write scathing editorials against lynching, gave public speakings on the subject and began to organize and mobilize blacks in an effort to abolish the practice. Wells also began a comprehensive study of lynching. In 1892 Wells spoke at a conference of black women’s clubs, where she was given $500 to investigate lynching and publish her findings. Wells began investigating the fraudulent charges given as reasons to lynch black men. She found that many blacks were hung, shot and burned to death for trivial things such as not paying a debt, disrespecting whites, testifying in court, stealing hogs, and public drunkenness. Her findings were published in a pamphlet entitled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In particular, Wells found that one third of the charges against black men were for the rape of white women. The violence was thus “justified” in that it was protecting “white womanhood.” Wells found that in many of these “rape” cases there was evidence of a consensual relationship between black men and white women. Wells’ implications caused outrage among the white community. A mob destroyed the office of her newspaper and threatened to kill her. Wells was speaking in Philadelphia at the time of the mob. Unable to return to her home, she re-settled in Chicago and continued her anti-lynching campaign. The New York Age began printing her articles after the demise of The Free Speech, and Wells launched a lecturing tour throughout the northeast to further spread her message on the horrors of lynching.
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