Ida B. Wells, A Passion for Justice



Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was a newspaper editor and journalist who went on to lead the American anti-lynching crusade. Working closely with both African-American community leaders and American suffragists, Wells worked to raise gender issues within the "Race Question" and race issues within the "Woman Question." Wells was born the daughter of slaves in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862. During Reconstruction, she was educated at a Missouri Freedman's School, Rust University, and began teaching school at the age of fourteen. In 1884, she moved to Memphis, Tennesee, where she continued to teach while attending Fisk University during summer sessions. In Tennessee, especially, she bristled at the poor treatment she and other African-Americans received. After she was forcibly removed from her seat for refusing to move to a "colored car" on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, her suit against the railroad for violating her civil rights was rejected by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1877. This event and the legal struggle which followed it, however, encouraged Wells to continue to oppose racial injustice toward African-Americans. She took up journalism in addition to schoolteaching, and in 1891, after she had written several newspaper articles critical of the educational opportunities afforded African-American students, her teaching contract was not renewed. Effectively barred from teaching, she invested her savings in a part-interest in the Memphis Free Speech newspaper.

In 1892, Wells wrote a scathing series of editorials following the lynching of three prominent African-American Memphis businessmen, friends of Wells's. In the aftermath of the lynching and her outspoken criticism of it, her newspaper's office was sacked. Wells then moved to New York City, where she continued to write editorials and exposés against lynching, which was at an epidemic level in the years after Reconstruction. Joining the staff of The New York Age, Wells became a much-sought-after lecturer and organizer for anti-lynching societies made up of men and women of all races. She travelled throughout the U.S. and went to Britain twice to speak about anti-lynching activities.

In 1895 Wells married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a Chicago lawyer, public official, and publisher of the Conservator. She settled in Chicago and adopted as her married name Ida Wells-Barnett. After 1895 she limited her activities to Chicago, but she was quite active in Chicago's rapidly-growing African-American community. In Chicago she wrote for the Conservator, published a book-length expose of lynching (The Red Record, 1895), and organized Chicago women regarding several causes, from anti-lynching to suffrage. From 1898 to 1902, Wells served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, and in 1910 she founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League. Throughout her life, Wells was militant in her demands for equality and justice for African-Americans, and insisted that the African-American community must win justice through its own efforts. She attended the 1909 meeting of the Niagara Movement, but she would not take part in the less radical National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which grew out of the conference. After a life of organizing and writing, she died in Chicago on March 25, 1931.

Questions to Think About:

1) Who was Ida B. Wells, and how does her life story shed light on the experiences of women in her period in general, and African-American women specifically?

2) How were white attitudes towards African Americans changed by the end of slavery at the end of the Civil War?

3) What sorts of reactions did former slaves have to emancipation? Why did so many slave families choose to remarry under the Freedmen's Bureaus? What was the meaning of these acts?

4) What was the impact of the end of Reconstruction? How did Ida B. Wells respond to these changes, and the differences between the freedoms of the Reconstruction period and the repression of the Jim Crow period?

5) What were the strategies of resistance to racism that Wells adopted? To what extent were these strategies similar and different from those adopted by women--of whatever race--against sexism? Were they successful?

6) What was the significance of Ida Wells's case against the railroad? Did her case seem similar to any other cases concerning race discrimination and the railroads, such as the Plessy v. Ferguson case?

7) What sources of opposition to her activism did Wells have to face? Why did the white community respond as it did to Wells's editorial about the voluntary nature of white women's relationships with Black men?

8) How did Wells set out to defend the morality of African-American women? Why was this so important? Why was this part of her strategy of resisting and opposing racism?

9) How did Wells battle both racism and sexism?

10) Why did Susan B. Anthony's support for Wells shift after Wells married? Why was Anthony so critical of Wells's marriage to Barnett? How did the meaning of this marriage differ for Anthony from what it meant for Wells? What does this say about Anthony's views on woman's rights?

11) How did the African-American community respond to Wells's activism? Were there different groups within the Black community that responded differently to her ideas? From what did these differences spring?

12) What was Wells's role within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP? Why did her role in the NAACP change?

13) When Wells distributed buttons decrying the "Martyred Negro Soldiers" of Brownsville, why was she not charged with treason? What does this say about the power of a woman who speaks out like Wells did?

14) What is the significance of Wells's story to American women's history? What can we learn from it? How might American women remember this story in varying ways?

Other resources for studying the life and times of Ida B. Wells:

Records of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, 1895-1992
A brief biography of Ida Bell Wells-Barnett
Another brief biography of Ida B. Wells, Anti-Lynching Crusader
Yet another brief biography of Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 286 (American Women's History), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to lavender@postbox.csi.cuny.edu
Fall Semester 1997. Last modified: Tuesday 20 February 2001.