Ida B. Wells
Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862. She was the oldest daughter of James and Lizzie Wells’ eight children. They were owned by architect, Spires Bolling at his home which is now the historic Bolling–Gatewood House or Ida B. Wells Museum.
Wells was born during the American Civil War. She was about five months old when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Her parents were active during the Reconstruction Era. Her father joined the Freedman’s Aid Society and even assisted in starting a college specially for newly freed slaves, Shaw University (now Rust College), where he served on the first board of trustees. Both her parents insisted that their children receive an education. They attended Shaw University, even her mother, Lizzie attended classes. Sadly, both her parents and one of her brothers succumbed to Yellow Fever in 1878, when Wells was just 16.
While the adults around her wanted to split the up the remaining children, Wells at just 16, assumed responsibility for her five younger siblings. Claiming to be 18, she received her first teaching job at $25 a month. She taught for several years at several institutions and continued her education at Fisk University in Nashville, TN.
Her passion was standing her ground.
In 1884, Wells bought a first class ticket to Nashville. The conductor ordered her to give up her ticket and sit in the smoking car of the train. She refused and was physically removed and dragged off the train. But it didn’t stop there, she wrote an article for The Living Way, a black church weekly and hired an attorney to sue the railroad company, the railroad paid him off, so she hired a second attorney and won her case. Unfortunately, the railroad appealed and ultimately won and forced Wells to pay for legal fees. Wells expressed her disappointment for the ruling, “I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people…O God, is there no…justice in this land for us?”
She continued working as a teacher and continued voicing her opinions in The Living Way under the nom de plume, Lola. In 1889, J.L. Fleming, (Memphis businessman) and Reverend Taylor Nightingale, (pastor of the largest African-American church in Memphis) offered Wells a position at their newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Wells requested a position equal to editor and they agreed. Around 1891, Wells was offered an editorial position for the Washington, DC’s Evening Star. This was around the time she was fired from her teaching position for writing a scathing expose on the terrible conditions of segregated schools. And so, became a journalist full-time.
She became an investigative reporter after the wrongful death of her friends. Her friend opened the Peoples Grocery (a convenient store in a Black Neighborhood.) Angry that it was doing well, thus competing with the white grocery store, a white mob attacked Peoples Grocery, three of the white men were injured during the altercation. Three black men, including Wells’ friend were arrested. While they sat in jail waiting for their trial, another white mob lynched them.
After receiving death threats, Wells moved to Chicago and continued to research lynchings, documenting charges and causes, which led her to start an anti-lynching campaign. Wells published her research in a pamphlet entitled, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She continued writing articles and along with several black leaders, including, Frederick Douglas and future husband famed African-American lawyer, Ferdinand Barnett; organized a boycott of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Due to the fact they refused to collaborate with the black community on representing African-American life in their exhibits.
In 1896, she formed the National Association of Colored Women, though she would later be excluded due to a coupe started by Mary Church Terrell. Although Wells was a feminist she was often rejected by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States after her she would blame many white women for lynchings during her travels through Europe. In 1889, Wells organized a protest in Washington, DC in an effort to urge then President William McKinley for reform. She also attended one of the first meetings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), though she later explained that she felt the group was too inactive while in its infancy.
She called upon another President, Woodrow Wilson, this time on behalf of National Equal Rights League, urging the President to put an end to discrimination when it comes to government jobs. Before her death in 1931 at the age of 68, Wells ran for state senator. A woman of action, Wells has been quoted with saying, “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
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