Since it’s still National Women’s History Month and since the Associated Press ran an article in February on George W. Bush’s statements against the use of nooses and noose jokes, it seemed an appropriate time to write something about Ida B. Wells, the journalist who crusaded against lynch laws in this country.
Looking at various online sources I have compiled a brief biography of Ms. Wells. A Civil Rights leader, she was also a suffragist, newspaper editor and publisher, investigative journalist, co-founder of the NAACP, political candidate, mother, wife and the single most powerful leader in the anti-lynching campaign in America.
Ms. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1862 to the slaves James and Elizabeth Wells, during the American Civil War of 1861-1865. Her parents were freed from slavery at the end of the Civil War. After both parents and a sibling died of yellow fever when Ms. Wells was 14 years old, she dropped out of school and found a job as a teacher to support her six remaining siblings.
Ms. Wells and most of her siblings moved to Memphis in the 1880s, where she worked and attended summer sessions at Fisk University. She was angered by the treatment African-Americans received and was forcibly removed from her seat on a railroad car when she refused to move to a “colored car.” She sued the railroad and won her case initially but lost when the railroad appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1877. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, which “banned discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color” in public accommodations, was declared unconstitutional in 1883, replaced by the “separate but equal” philosophy.
Ms. Wells began a career in journalism while teaching school, but she lost her teaching contract after writing articles criticizing the poor education given to African-Americans. Ms. Wells participated in women’s suffrage parades but even then was expected to stand in the back because she was black, which she refused to do.
In 1889 Ms. Wells invested in the Memphis Free Speech newspaper. In 1892 she was forced to leave Memphis after writing a criticism of the lynching of three African-American businessmen, pointing out that they were lynched because they were taking business away from white merchants. She encouraged African-Americans to leave Memphis, which many did. Ms. Wells moved to Chicago.
She published a pamphlet entitled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” documenting lynchings. Ms. Wells and other black leaders boycotted the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and wrote and distributed a pamphlet called “Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.”
In 1895 Ms. Wells married a Chicago lawyer, Ferdinand L. Barnett, and adopted the name Ida Wells-Barnett. In 1906 Ms. Wells joined William E.B. DuBois and others to further the Niagara Movement, and she was one of two African-American women to sign “the call” to form the NAACP.
Ms. Wells spent a lifetime in the fight for Civil Rights and women’s suffrage and broke bread and crossed swords with Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and President McKinley. She died in 1931.