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Ida Bell Wells-Barnett gained a national reputation in the 1890s as a pioneering crusader against lynching. Her long career spanned a wide variety of venues, including schoolroom, settlement house, municipal court, electoral politics, home, church, and social club. Journalism, however, was her calling. Her publications, many of them too militant or sharply worded to find a substantial receptive audience, remain her greatest legacy.
The eldest of eight children, Ida was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, fifty miles southeast of Memphis. Her parents died in the yellow fever epidemic that swept through the Mississippi River Valley in 1878, leaving sixteen-year-old Ida to care for five siblings. She quickly secured a teaching position, made possible by her education at Shaw University in Holly Springs. Between 1880 and 1882 she relocated to Memphis, taking along two sisters and leaving her other siblings in the care of relatives.
Wells found her teaching career in Memphis unsatisfying, and she soon discovered a far more rewarding form of pedagogy: journalism. She published her first newspaper article in a church weekly in 1883, and began sending articles about black women to major African American publications in eastern cities. By 1885, writing as “Iola,” she was among the few African American women writing about politics, and in 1889 she became co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Her straightforward criticism in 1891 of the Memphis school board’s neglect of black children and exploitation of black female teachers led to a decision not to renew her teaching appointment.
Wells’s uncompromising journalism reflected her general approach to race relations. At the age of twenty-two, she sued a railroad after being thrown off the train for refusing to ride in a segregated car. In 1892 three Memphis black grocers were lynched after a conflict with a white competitor envious of their success. Wells later recalled that the event “changed the whole course of my life” (DeCosta-Willis 1995). Her unsigned attack on the lynching eschewed the cautious convention observed by southern black spokesmen who paired their criticism of lynching with ritualized reminders that the black community should not accept criminal behavior within its ranks. Wells understood that lynching was meant less to punish depravity (which white southerners expected from “their Negroes”) than to punish the more dangerous sin of a black person not accepting his place.
Wells left Memphis immediately, probably expecting the mob attack on her newspaper the following day. She spent the next three years in eastern cities and Great Britain, lecturing and writing (now under the name “Exile”). Drawing on statistics compiled from careful research, she demonstrated that less than a third of lynching victims had even been accused of rape. Lynching, she argued, had less to do with the honor of white womanhood than “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down’ ” (DeCosta-Willis 1995, p. xiii). Her charge that liaisons between white men and black women constituted the true threat to racial purity stirred even greater controversy.
Wells visited Chicago in 1893 to protest the exclusion of African Americans from the World’s Columbian Exposition. Characteristically, she took a more militant position that most of her peers, advocating a boycott of the “Colored American Day” granted by the fair managers to placate the protesters. She relocated to Chicago permanently two years later, marrying prominent attorney Ferdinand Barnett. Over the next three decades she wrote less, putting her energies into the woman suffrage movement, local politics, and social work. In 1910 she founded the Negro Fellowship League as a venue for “missionary work” and “social work” on the city’s South Side. Facing competition first from the city’s black YMCA (1913) and then Urban League (1915), the Fellowship League shifted to a focus on politics and had only a minor presence by the time black southerners began moving to Chicago in large numbers in late 1916.
Wells-Barnett, who attended the founding meeting of the NAACP in 1910 in New York, never established herself as a major figure in African American institutional life. Although conventionally middle class in style, manners, and religious observance, she had limited patience with polite diplomacy during a generally cautious era of black politics.
Although she effectively mobilized black voters briefly through the Alpha Suffrage Club (established in 1913), Ida B. Wells was more adept at analytical and rhetorical provocation than organization. She understood in the 1890s what W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) would famously enunciate four decades later in Black Reconstruction (1935): that African American success and dignity were less likely to win equal citizenship than to provoke the violence necessary to keep “the Negro” in his place.
- DeCosta-Willis, Miriam, ed. 1995. The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Grossman, James. 1997. “Social Burden” or “Amiable Peasantry”: Constructing a Place for Black Southerners. In American Exceptionalism?: U.S. Working-class Formation in an International Context. Eds. Rick Halpern and Jonathan Morris, 221–243. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Holt, Thomas C. 1982. The Lonely Warrior: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the Struggle for Black Leadership. In Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, eds. John Hope Franklin and August Meier, 38–61. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Schechter, Patricia A. 2001. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880–1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Wells, Ida B. 1892. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry.
- Wells, Ida B., Frederick Douglass, I. Garland Penn, and Ferdinand L. Barnett.  1999. The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, ed. Robert W. Rydell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1895. A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892–1893–1894. Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry.
- Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1899. Lynch Law in Georgia. Chicago pamphlet, distributed by Chicago Colored Citizens.
- Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1900. Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death. Chicago pamphlet.
- Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1917. The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century. Chicago: The Negro Fellowship Herald Press.
- Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1922. The Arkansas Race Riot.
- Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1991. Selected works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Comp. Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press.
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