Biography of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Journalist Who Fought Racism

Portrait of Ida B. Wells, 1920
Portrait of Ida B. Wells, 1920. Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862–March 25, 1931), known for much of her public career as Ida B. Wells, was an anti-lynching activist, a muckraking journalist, a lecturer, and an activist for racial justice, and a suffragette. She wrote on racial justice issues for Memphis newspapers as a reporter and newspaper owner, as well as other articles about politics and issues of race for newspapers and periodicals throughout the South.

Fast Facts: Ida B. Wells

  • Known For: Muckraking journalist, lecturer, activist for racial justice, and suffragette
  • Also Known As: Ida B. Wells-Barnett
  • Born: July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi
  • Died: March 25, 1931, in Chicago
  • Education: Rust College, Fisk University
  • Parents: James and Elizabeth Wells
  • Published Works: "Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells," "A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892 - 1893 - 1894," Various articles published in Black newspapers and periodicals in the South
  • Spouse: Ferdinand L. Barnett (m. 1985–March 25, 1931)
  • Children: Alfreda Barnett, Herman Kohlsaat Barnett, Alfreda Duster, Charles Barnett, Ida B. Barnett
  • Notable Quote: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Early Life

Enslaved from birth, Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father, James Wells, was a carpenter who was the son of the man who enslaved his mother and him. Her mother, Elizabeth, was a cook and was enslaved by the same man as her husband. Both kept working for him after emancipation. Her father got involved in politics and became a trustee of Rust College, a freedman's school, which Ida attended.

A yellow fever epidemic orphaned Wells at 16 when her parents and some of her brothers and sisters died. To support her surviving brothers and sisters, she became a teacher for $25 a month, leading the school to believe that she was already 18 in order to obtain the job.

Education and Early Career

In 1880, after seeing her brothers placed as apprentices, Wells moved with her two younger sisters to live with a relative in Memphis. There, she obtained a teaching position at a school for Black people and began taking classes at Fisk University in Nashville during summers.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett
R. Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wells also began writing for the Negro Press Association. She became editor of a weekly, Evening Star, and then of Living Way, writing under the pen name Lola. Her articles were reprinted in other Black newspapers around the country.

In 1884, while riding in the ladies' car on a trip to Nashville, Wells was removed and forced into a car for Black people, even though she had a first-class ticket. She sued the railroad, the Chesapeake and Ohio, and won a settlement of $500. In 1887, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict, and Wells had to pay court costs of $200.

Wells began writing more on racial injustice issues and she became a reporter for, and part-owner of, the paper Memphis Free Speech. She was particularly outspoken on issues involving the school system, which still employed her. In 1891, after one series in which she had been particularly critical (including of a White school board member she alleged was involved in an affair with a Black woman), her teaching contract was not renewed.

Wells increased her efforts in writing, editing, and promoting the newspaper. She continued her outspoken criticism of racism. She created a new stir when she endorsed violence as a means of self-protection and retaliation.

Lynching in Memphis

Lynching at that time had become one common means by which Black people were intimidated. Nationally, in about 200 lynchings each year, about two-thirds of the victims were Black men, but the percentage was much higher in the South.

In Memphis in 1892, three Black businessmen established a new grocery store, cutting into the business of White-owned businesses nearby. After increasing harassment, the Black business owners fired on some people breaking into the store. The three men were jailed, and nine self-appointed deputies took them from the jail and lynched them.

One of the lynched men, Tom Moss, was the father of Ida B. Wells' goddaughter, and Wells knew him and his partners to be upstanding citizens. She used the paper to denounce the lynching and to endorse economic retaliation by the Black community against White-owned businesses as well as the segregated public transportation system. She also promoted the idea that Black people should leave Memphis for the newly opened Oklahoma territory, visiting and writing about Oklahoma in her paper. She bought a pistol for self-defense.

Wells also wrote against lynching in general. In particular, the White community became incensed when she published an editorial denouncing the myth that Black men raped White women. Her allusion to the idea that White women might consent to a relationship with Black men was particularly offensive to the White community.

Wells was out of town when a mob invaded the paper's offices and destroyed the presses, responding to a call in a White-owned paper. Wells heard that her life was threatened if she returned, and so she went to New York, self-styled as a "journalist in exile."

Journalist in Exile

Anti-Lynching Crusader Ida B. Wells
Fotoresearch/Getty Images

Wells continued writing newspaper articles at New York Age, where she exchanged the subscription list of Memphis Free Speech for a part ownership in the paper. She also wrote pamphlets and spoke widely against lynching.

In 1893, Wells went to Great Britain, returning again the next year. There, she spoke about lynching in America, found significant support for anti-lynching efforts, and saw the organization of the British Anti-Lynching Society. She debated Frances Willard during her 1894 trip; Wells had been denouncing a statement of Willard's that tried to gain support for the temperance movement by asserting that the Black community was opposed to temperance, a statement that raised the image of drunken Black mobs threatening White women—a theme that played into a defense of lynching.

Move to Chicago

On returning from her first British trip, Wells moved to Chicago. There, she worked with Frederick Douglass and a local lawyer and editor, Ferdinand Barnett, in writing an 81-page booklet about the exclusion of Black participants from most of the events around the Colombian Exposition. She met and married widower Ferdinand Barnett in 1895. (Thereafter she became known as Ida B. Wells-Barnett.) Together they had four children, born in 1896, 1897, 1901, and 1904, and she helped raise his two children from his first marriage. She also wrote for his newspaper, the Chicago Conservator.

In 1895 Wells-Barnett published "A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892 - 1893 - 1894." She documented that lynchings were not, indeed, caused by Black men raping white women.

From 1898 through 1902, Wells-Barnett served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council. In 1898, she was part of a delegation to President William McKinley seeking justice after the lynching in South Carolina of a Black postman. Later, in 1900, she spoke for women's suffrage and worked with another Chicago woman, Jane Addams, to defeat an attempt to segregate Chicago's public school system.

Helps Found, Then Leaves, NAACP

In 1901, the Barnetts bought the first house east of State Street to be owned by a Black family. Despite harassment and threats, they continued to live in the neighborhood. Wells-Barnett was a founding member of the NAACP in 1909 but withdrew her membership, criticizing the organization for not being militant enough. In her writing and lectures, she often criticized middle-class Black people including ministers for not being active enough in helping the poor in the Black community.

In 1910, Wells-Barnett helped found and became president of the Negro Fellowship League, which established a settlement house in Chicago to serve the many Black people newly arrived from the South. She worked for the city as a probation officer from 1913 to 1916, donating most of her salary to the organization. But with competition from other groups, the election of an unfriendly city administration, and Wells-Barnett's poor health, the league closed its doors in 1920.

Women's Suffrage

In 1913, Wells-Barnett organized the Alpha Suffrage League, an organization of Black women supporting woman suffrage. She was active in protesting the strategy of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the largest pro-suffrage group, regarding the participation of Black people and how the group treated racial issues. The NAWSA generally made participation of Black people invisible—even while claiming that no Black women had applied for membership—so as to try to win votes for suffrage in the South. By forming the Alpha Suffrage League, Wells-Barnett made clear that the exclusion was deliberate, and that Black people did support woman suffrage, even knowing that other laws and practices that barred Black men from voting would also affect women.

A major suffrage demonstration in Washington, D.C., timed to align with the presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, asked that Black supporters march at the back of the line. Many Black suffragists, like Mary Church Terrell, agreed for strategic reasons after initial attempts to change the minds of the leadership—but not Wells-Barnett. She inserted herself into the march with the Illinois delegation, and the delegation welcomed her. The leadership of the march simply ignored her action.

Wider Equality Efforts

Also in 1913, Wells-Barnett was part of a delegation to see President Wilson to urge non-discrimination in federal jobs. She was elected as chair of the Chicago Equal Rights League in 1915, and in 1918 organized legal aid for victims of the Chicago race riots of 1918.

In 1915, she was part of the successful election campaign that led to Oscar Stanton De Priest becoming the first Black alderman in the city. She was also part of founding the first kindergarten for Black children in Chicago.

In 1924, Wells-Barnett failed in a bid to win election as president of the National Association of Colored Women, defeated by Mary McLeod Bethune. In 1930, she failed in a bid to be elected to the Illinois State Senate as an independent.

Death and Legacy

Wells-Barnett died in 1931 in Chicago, largely unappreciated and unknown, but the city later recognized her activism by naming a housing project in her honor. The Ida B. Wells Homes, in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, included rowhouses, mid-rise apartments, and some high-rise apartments. Because of the housing patterns of the city, these were occupied primarily by Black people. Completed in 1939 to 1941, and initially a successful program, over time, neglect and other urban problems led to their decay including gang problems. They were torn down between 2002 and 2011 and replaced by a mixed-income development project.

Although anti-lynching was her main focus, and Wells-Barnett shined a light on this important racial justice issue, she never achieved her goal of federal anti-lynching legislation. Her lasting success was in the area of organizing Black women.

Her autobiography "Crusade for Justice," on which she worked in her later years, was published posthumously in 1970, edited by her daughter Alfreda M. Wells-Barnett. Her home in Chicago is a National Historic Landmark and is under private ownership.

Ida B. Wells Stamp
The U.S. Postal service issued a stamp honoring Ida B. Wells in 1991. U.S. Postal Service/Public Domain

In 1991, the U.S. Postal Service issued the Ida B. Wells stamp. In 2020, Wells-Barnett was awarded the Pulitzer Prize "for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching."

Sources

  • Goings, Kenneth W. “Memphis Free Speech.” Tennessee Encyclopedia, Tennessee Historical Society, 7 Oct. 2019.
  • Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” Ida B. Wells-Barnett | National Postal Museum.
  • Ida B. Wells (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.
  • Wells, Ida B. and Duster, Alfreda M. Crusade for Justice: the Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. University of Chicago Press, 1972.