Ida B. Wells

Crusading Journalist Campaigned Against Lynching in America

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

African American journalist Ida B. Wells went to heroic lengths in the late 1890s to document the horrifying practice of lynching Black people. Her groundbreaking work, which included collecting statistics in a practice that today is called "data journalism," established that the lawless killing of Black people was a systematic practice, especially in the South in the era following Reconstruction.

Wells became deeply interested in the lynching problem after three Black businessmen she knew were killed by a white mob outside Memphis, Tennessee, in 1892. For the next four decades she would devote her life, often at great personal risk, to campaigning against lynching.

At one point a newspaper she owned was burned by a white mob. And she was certainly no stranger to death threats. Yet she doggedly reported on lynchings and made the subject of lynching a topic which American society could not ignore.

Early Life

Ida B. Wells was enslaved from her birth on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She was the eldest of eight children. Following the end of the Civil War, her father, who as an enslaved person had been the carpenter on a plantation, was active in Reconstruction period politics in Mississippi.

When Ida was young she was educated in a local school, though her education was interrupted when both her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic when she was 16. She had to take care of her siblings, and she moved with them to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with an aunt.

In Memphis, Wells found work as a teacher. And she resolved to become an activist when, on May 4, 1884, she was ordered to leave her seat on a streetcar and move to a segregated car. She refused and was ejected from the train. 

She began to write about her experiences, and became affiliated with The Living Way, a newspaper published by African Americans. In 1892 she became the co-owner of a small newspaper for African Americans in Memphis, the Free Speech.

The Anti-Lynching Campaign

The horrendous practice of lynching had become widespread in the South in the decades following the Civil War. And it hit home for Ida B. Wells in March 1892 when three young African American businessmen she knew in Memphis were abducted by a mob and murdered.

Wells resolved to document the lynchings in the South, and to speak out in hopes of ending the practice. She began advocating for the Black citizens of Memphis to move to the West, and she urged boycotts of segregated streetcars.

By challenging the white power structure, she became a target. And in May 1892 the office of her newspaper, the Free Speech, was attacked by a white mob and burned. 

She continued her work documenting lynchings. She traveled to England in 1893 and 1894, and spoke at many public meetings about the conditions in the American South. She was, of course, attacked for that at home. A Texas newspaper called her an "adventuress," and the governor of Georgia even claimed that she was a stooge for international businessmen trying to get people to boycott the South and do business in the American West.

In 1894 she returned to America and embarked on a speaking tour. An address she gave in Brooklyn, New York, on December 10, 1894, was covered in the New York Times. The report noted that Wells had been welcomed by a local chapter of the Anti-Lynching Society, and a letter from Frederick Douglass, regretting that he couldn't attend, had been read.

The New York Times reported on her speech:

"During the present year, she said, no less than 206 lynchings had taken place. They were not only on the increase, she declared, but were becoming intensified in their barbarism and boldness.
"She said that lynchings that formerly took place at night were now in some cases actually perpetrated in the broad daylight, and more than that, photographs were taken of the atrocious crime, and were sold as souvenirs of the occasion.
"In some instances, Miss Wells said, the victims were burned as a sort of diversion. She said that the Christian and moral forces of the country were now required to revolutionize public sentiment."

In 1895 Wells published a landmark book, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings In the United States. In a sense, Wells practiced what today is often lauded as data journalism, as she scrupulously kept records and was able to document the large numbers of lynchings which were taking place in America.

Personal Life

In 1895 Wells married Ferdinand Barnett, an editor and lawyer in Chicago. They lived in Chicago and had four children. Wells continued her journalism, and often published articles on the subject of lynching and civil rights for African Americans. She became involved in local politics in Chicago and also with the nationwide drive for women's suffrage.

Ida B. Wells died on March 25, 1931. Though her campaign against lynching did not stop the practice, her groundbreaking reporting and writing on the subject was a milestone in American journalism.

Belated Honors

At the time Ida B. Wells died she had faded from public view somewhat, and major newspapers did not note her passing. In March 2018, as part of a project to highlight women who had been overlooked, the New York Times published a belated obituary of Ida B. Wells.

There has also been a movement to honor Wells with a statue in the Chicago neighborhood where she lived. And in June 2018 the Chicago city government voted to honor Wells by naming a street for her.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "Ida B. Wells." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). Ida B. Wells. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Ida B. Wells." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).