I don’t know when I first learned about Ida B. Wells. I wonder if, being a Mississippian, she has always existed in my consciousness or if there was a moment at which I was specifically educated about her. No matter, when I think about influences, inspiration and admiration, it is Ida B. Wells who, after considering family members, first comes to mind.
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Miss., on July 16, 1862. A few months after her birth, on September 22, Wells was legally declared free due to the Emancipation Proclamation. She was the oldest daughter of her parents, James and Lizzie Wells. James was involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society. He was among the first board of trustees for Shaw University, now Rust College, an institution for formerly enslaved people.
Wells attended Shaw, but when she was 16-years-old, both of her parents and one of her siblings died from yellow fever. Wells dropped out of university, becoming a teacher instead, to care for her other siblings.
Later, Wells and her two youngest sisters moved to Memphis, Tenn., to live with an aunt. During this time, Wells also enrolled at and attended summer sessions at Fisk University, in Nashville, and she attended classes at Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis.
At 22 Wells bought a first-class train ticket for a train ride from Memphis to Nashville. The train crew ordered her to move to the car for Black passengers but she refused. Wells was forcibly removed from the train— but not before biting one of the men who violated her person and her rights. She sued the railroad and won a $500 settlement in a circuit court case, though the decision was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ordered Wells to pay costs. Of this, on April 11, 1887, Wells wrote in her diary, “I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people generally. I have firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now if it were possible would gather my race in my arms and fly far away with them. Oh God is there no redress, no peace, no justice in this land for us?”
This injustice is what led to Wells’ becoming the noteworthy and acclaimed journalist we know today. In addition to working as a journalist and writer, Wells taught in a school in Memphis. From her position inside the schools, the writer became a critic of the condition of the Black schools in the city. She was fired from her teaching job because of her criticisms. This firing did not silence her, however.
Three Black men—Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart—opened a grocery store in Memphis. This incensed a white storeowner who resented the new competition. The storeowner and Moss, McDowell and Stewart clashed several times. The trio guarded their store when, on March 5, 1892, six white men tried to attack the store again. In doing so, the trio wounded some of the white vandals. They were arrested, and on March 9 of the same year, 75 men wearing black masks took the three men from their jail cells and lynched them. Before being killed, Moss said, “Tell my people to go west, there is no justice here.”
Wells immortalized the men by writing about this lynching. She traveled across the south, reporting on other lynchings, and documenting the lives that were needlessly taken. Wells published her research and reporting on lynching in a pamphlet entitled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases.” Wells argued white southerners lynched Black people because they were threatened by Black economic progress. Wells’ research was published just two years after Mississippi enacted its Black Codes. Wells’ 1895 “The Red Record” was a 100-page pamphlet that detailed lynching and Black struggles in the South following the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1893 and 1894, Wells traveled to Britain to inform larger audiences of lynchings in the United States. Though she was well-received in Britain, Americans were not pleased with her anti-lynching activism. The New York Times wrote that Wells was “a slanderous and nasty-nasty-minded Mulatress.”
Eventually, Wells left Memphis, she left the South to continue her work in Chicago and in New York. In that way, Wells became one of the most famous participants in the Great Migration. In Chicago, Wells continued her work to achieve civil rights for Black people, in addition to being a women’s rights activist. In 1893, along with the man who would become her husband, Ferdinand L. Barnett; Frederick Douglass; and Irvine Garland Penn, wells organized a Black boycott of the World’s Columbian Exposition due to its exclusion of Blacks from exhibits.
Though Ida B. Wells predates the use of both the terms “feminist” and “womanist,” she is, for many, a spiritual foremother of the movement. Wells’ arguments against lynching and for women’s suffrage were also arguments against white supremacist patriarchy. Wells’ work insured that Black women were not erased from both movements.
In her short life (Wells died on March 25, 1931, at age 68, from kidney failure), she accomplished so very much and left her mark on our history, but all of it started here, in Mississippi.