Ida B. Wells-Barnett
(1862-1931) Holly Springs, Mississippi
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was a powerful antilynching advocate, she fought tirelessly for civil rights and women's suffrage throughout the entirety of her life. Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed her and her family from slave life when she was just a baby, her life was not unfamiliar with hardship.
In 1878, when Ida was away from home visiting her grandmother, yellow fever swept through her hometown taking the lives of both of her parents and her youngest brother. She returned home and courageously assumed responsibility for her five other siblings. Ida dropped out of school and got a teaching job to support her siblings, she was just sixteen years old.
Ida was in her early twenties riding in the lady’s car on a Chesapeake & Ohio train when the conductor ordered her to leave that car and go to the car for African Americans. Ida refused and firmly stood her ground, it took a few men to forcibly take her to the less commodious car, but Ida didn’t stop fighting. She sued the company after the incident and was initially victorious, winning the $500 settlement. Later, however, when the case went to the Tennessee Supreme court, it was overturned.
The lynching of three African Americans in Memphis set off Ida’s efforts to fight against this evil. The African Americans were store owners and were lynched because their business was creating competition with the white store owners. Ida was furious she wrote a biting editorial in the Memphis Free Speech, a newspaper she would later co-own. In her editorial, she accused the entire white community in Memphis with the murders because they were doing nothing to stop the lawlessness. Ida questioned how legitimate a justice system could be if built on a foundation of discrimination. The backlash from her words resulted in threats to her life, so she left Memphis and fled first to New York and then to Chicago, Illinois.
She started to gather statistics and evidence of those that had died due to lynching and wrote about what she found in Southern Horror: Lynching Law In All Its Phases. In the next few years, Ida went overseas to continue her efforts. While in the British Isles, she talked to anyone that would listen. She found support from well-known journalists, members of Parliament, church leaders, and many more. A compilation of these individuals formed the London Anitlynching Society, which was led by John Douglas Sutherland Campbell, the Duke of Argyll.
In 1913, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, along with her colleague Belle Squire, founded the Alpha Suffrage Club. Within two years of its creation, it had two hundred members and became the largest black women’s suffrage club in Illinois. In March of the same year, just a few months after the club was founded, they raised funds to send Ida off to Washington D.C. She planned to represent the Alpha Suffrage Club and march with her state in the suffrage demonstration being organized by the NAWSA. While Illinois had been completely inclusive in fighting for the rights of all women, the NAWSA held different views. All black women were told to march at the back of the parade. Ida’s white colleagues stood up for her and were appalled at the request. Ida stated emotionally, “Either I go with you or not at all. I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.” She then left, seeming to have forfeited her spot in the parade, but after the march started she slipped from the crowd calmly claiming her spot marching with her state. Two white suffragists and friends Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks quickly assumed positions on each side of Ida and she marched with them the remainder of the demonstration. A picture of the three women standing together was printed in the Chicago Tribune on March 5th, 1913.
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Explore the life of Ida Wells in this biography by historian Mia Bay, To Tell the Truth Freely, or learn about her life of activism in depth in Black Woman Reformer by historian Sarah Silkey, both books available through the Library catalog. available here
Susan Ware, Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women who Fought for the Right to Vote, Harvard University Press, 2019.
Giddings, Paula J. "Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1862–1931." Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, edited by Patrick L. Mason
Paula J. Giddings, A Noble Endeavor: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Suffrage, Women’s Vote Centennial website. available here
Wanda A. Hendricks, Paulette Pennington Jones, and Careda Rolland Taylor, “Ida Wells-Barnett Confronts Race and Gender Discrimination,” Illinois Periodicals Online. available here