Ida B. Wells-Barnett

A Lifetime Working Against Racism 1862-1931

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

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, known for much of her public career as Ida B. Wells, was an anti-lynching activist, a muckraking journalist, a lecturer, and a militant activist for racial justice. She lived from July 16, 1862 to March 25, 1931.

Born into slavery, Wells-Barnett went to work as a teacher when she had to support her family after her parents died in an epidemic. She wrote on racial justice for Memphis newspapers as a reporter and newspaper owner.

She was forced to leave town when a mob attacked her offices in retaliation for writing against an 1892 lynching.

After briefly living in New York, she moved to Chicago, where she married and became involved in local racial justice reporting and organizing. She maintained her militancy and activism throughout her life.

Early Life

Ida B. Wells was enslaved at birth. She 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 him and his mother. Her mother, Elizabeth, was a cook and was enslaved by the same man as her husband was. 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.

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

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 Iola. 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 forcibly removed from that car and forced into a colored-only car, 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 and she became a reporter for, and part owner of, Memphis Free Speech. She was particularly outspoken on issues involving the school system, which still employed her. In 1891, after one particular 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 in that time had become one common means by which African Americans 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, there was an incident where the 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.

Anti-Lynching Crusade

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 African Americans should leave Memphis for the newly-opened Oklahoma territory, visiting and writing about Oklahoma in her paper. She bought herself a pistol for self-defense.

She 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, and 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."

Anti-Lynching Journalist in Exile

Ida B. 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 was able to debate 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 lynching defense.

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, Frederick Barnett, in writing an 81-page booklet about the exclusion of black participants from most of the events around the Colmbian Exposition.

She met and married Frederick Barnett who was a widower. 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 1898-1902, Wells-Barnett served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council. In 1898, she was part of a delegation to President William McKinley to seek justice after the lynching in South Carolina of a black postman.

In 1900, she spoke for woman suffrage, and worked with another Chicago woman, Jane Addams, to defeat an attempt to segregate Chicago's public school system.

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 blacks 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 African Americans newly arrived from the South. She worked for the city as a probation officer from 1913-1916, 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.

Woman Suffrage

In 1913, Wells-Barnett organized the Alpha Suffrage League, an organization of African American women supporting woman suffrage.  She was active in protesting the strategy of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the largest pro-suffrage group, on participation of African Americans and how they treated racial issues.  The NAWSA generally made participation of African Americans invisible -- even while claiming that no African American 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 African American women and men did support woman suffrage, even knowing that other laws and practices that barred African American men from voting would also affect women.

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

Wider Equality Efforts

Also in 1913, Ida B. 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.

Later Years and Legacy

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.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett died in 1931, largely unappreciated and unknown, but the city later recognized her activism by naming a housing project in her honor.

Her autobiography Crusade for Justice, on which she worked in her later years, was published in 1970, edited by her daughter Alfreda M. Wells-Barnett.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Ida B. Wells-Barnett." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/ida-b-wells-barnett-biography-3530698. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, July 31). Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ida-b-wells-barnett-biography-3530698 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Ida B. Wells-Barnett." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ida-b-wells-barnett-biography-3530698 (accessed December 14, 2017).