July 16, 1862– Ida B. Wells:
“It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed. Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.“
Wells was the most famous black woman in the USA during her lifetime, even as she faced racial prejudice, a plague infecting Americans from coast to coast.
She pioneered reporting techniques that remain part of journalism today. A former slave who stood less than five feet tall, she took on structural racism more than half a century before her strategies were used, often without crediting her, during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
Wells was already a 30-year-old newspaper editor living in Memphis when she began her anti-lynching campaign, the work for which she is most famous. After three successful black business men, her dear friends, were murdered by an angry white mob, she made reporting the killings of black Americans her focus in life, traveling all around the South conducting eyewitness interviews and digging up records on dozens of similar cases.
She dared to question a stereotype that was often used to justify lynchings: that black men were rapists. Instead, she found that in two-thirds of mob murders, rape was never an accusation. And she often found evidence of what was often a consensual interracial relationship.
She published her findings in a series of fiery editorials in the newspaper she co-owned and edited, The Memphis Free Speech. The reading public devoured them voraciously. The Journalist, a mainstream trade publication that covered the media, dubbed her “The Princess of the Press” for her fine-tooth reporting methods and language that, even by today’s standards, was unusually bold.
Wells wrote about the victims of racist violence and she organized economic boycotts long before that tactic was popular.
Frederick Douglass wrote of her:
“There has been no word equal to it in convincing power. I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison…”
Here is something she published in The Free Speech in 1892.
“Nobody in this section of the country believes the threadbare old lie that Negro men rape white women.”
Wells saw lynching as the most violent form of subjugation:
“…an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘the nigger down‘.”
Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi less than a year before Emancipation. She grew up during Reconstruction, the period when black men, including her father, were able to vote, ushering black representatives into state legislatures across the South.
In 1878, her parents both died of yellow fever, along with one of her brothers. 16-years-old Wells was left to take care of her seven siblings. She worked as a teacher after dropping out of high school and lying about her age. She finished her own education at night and on weekends.
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was largely nullified by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, in which the court laid out its “separate but equal” legal doctrine for facilities for black citizens, reversing the advancements made during Reconstruction. The anti-black sentiment that grew around her was known as “Jim Crow”.
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that were enacted by white Democratic-dominated state legislatures to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by African-Americans people during Reconstruction. The laws mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in the states of the former Confederate States of America. Public education was essentially segregated since its establishment in the South after the Civil War (1861–65).
Wells learned about politics in a time of justice that turned around to an era of injustice.
Wells decided to become a journalist during a golden age for black writers and editors. Her goal was to write about black people for black people, in a way that was accessible to those who were born the property of white people.
Her work columns were reprinted in Europe and in the more than 200 black newspapers then in circulation in the USA.
Wells bodaciously named the victims of racist violence and she wanted to tell their stories. She knew that her subjects would have otherwise been forgotten by all “save the night wind, no memorial service to bemoan their sad and horrible fate“.
Wells first began protesting while on a train ride between Memphis and her job at a rural school; the conductor told her that she must move to the train’s smoking car. Wells refused, arguing that she had purchased a first-class ticket. The conductor and other passengers physically removed her from the train. Wells returned to Memphis, hired a lawyer, and sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. The court decided in her favor, awarding Wells $500. The railroad company appealed, and in 1887, the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the previous decision and ordered Wells to pay court fees. Wells began to write editorials in black newspapers that challenged Jim Crow laws in the South.
In 1892, she published Southern Horrors, a pamphlet which detailed her findings. Through her research, lectures and books such as A Red Record (1895), Wells told how lynch victims had challenged white authority or had successfully competed with whites in business or politics. As a result of her outspokenness, a mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and threatened to kill Wells. She fled Memphis determined to continue her campaign to raise awareness of southern lynching. Wells took her movement to England encouraging the British to stop purchasing American cotton and angering many white Southern business owners. She established the British Anti-Lynching Society in 1894. She returned to the USA and settled in Chicago.
Wells was as fierce in person as she was in her writing, which made it difficult for her to maintain close relationships. She criticized people, including friends and allies, whom she saw as weak in their commitment to the causes she cared about.
One exception was her closest confidant, Ferdinand L. Barnett, a widower who was an editor and Civil Rights activist in Chicago. They married in 1895. Barnett’s activism became secondary to his wife’s career. It was a thoroughly modern relationship: He cooked dinner and cared for their children while she traveled to make speeches and organize.
During the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 in New York City, Wells ignored instructions to march with the segregated parade units and crossed the lines to march with the other members of her Illinois chapter. During World War I the U.S. government put her under surveillance and labeled her a “race-baiter”.
Late in life, Wells was replaced by activists like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, who were more conservative in their activism, giving them more support from the white establishment and even much of the black community. Still, she became one of the founders of prominent Civil Rights organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association of Colored Women, only to be edged out of their leadership positions.
During the final years of her life, Wells ran for the Illinois State Senate, but lost badly. Still, she persisted and continued to organize around causes such as mass incarceration, working for several years as a probation officer, until she died of kidney failure in 1931, at 69 years old.
Throughout her career, Wells was threatened physically constantly. She was debased by much of the press who called her a slut (and worse) for her frankness about interracial sex. For her anti-lynching editorials that were published in The Free Speech, she was run out of the South, her newspaper office destroyed, and her life threatened. But her commitment to chronicling the experience and humanity of African-Americans remained unflinching.
After fleeing Memphis, Wells wrote:
“If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other considerations are minor.”
Eight weeks ago, she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize “…for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching“.
Last month, during the George Floyd protests in Tennessee, protesters occupied an area outside the Tennessee State Capitol, and dubbed it “Ida B. Wells Plaza.”