Ida B. Wells was one of the most vocal and active reformers of her time. Her work included fighting for civil rights for blacks and voting rights for women. She herself founded several social organizations and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
She investigated the Race Riot in East St. Louis in July of 1918, warning in a Chicago Tribune editorial that Chicago’s simmering racism might result in a similar riot. Her predictions proved true, and as the 1919 Race Riots in Chicago raged, Ida was out collecting testimony, to collect evidence that blacks were primarily defending themselves, not instigating the violence. She later reported on the violence in Elaine Arkansas, helping to free a group of black men wrongly accused of planning to kill whites.
But her greatest work was to bring light to the brutality and injustice of lynchings. Prompted by the lynching of her good friend, Tom Moss in1892, Ida began a crusade to make lynchings a national issue. She interviewed families of lynching victims and the accusers themselves. Her findings documented that the lynched men were unjustly killed without trials and sometimes without charges, often for petty crimes, perceived slights against whites, consensual sexual relationships with white women, or for simply being successful businessmen or farmers. . She published these findings in a book (The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States) and newspapers, broadcasted the facts in speeches in America and Britain, brought the findings before governors and the President and Congress, and worked to gain fair trials and freedom for black men unjustly accused and imprisoned.
Ida’s Early Years
Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862 to slave parents, Ida B. Wells was herself a slave, but was freed before she was three years old. Her father was a skilled carpenter, so easily found employment in a South devastated from the war. Her mother, Elizabeth Warrenton, was a cook who had been beaten and sold multiple times as a slave. Both were forward thinking, bright and independent. They passed the belief on to Ida that she deserved equal rights and privileges to whites.
Unfortunately, Ida lived in a time when many Southern whites did not share this belief and were determined to pass laws to chip away at black’s new independence and their rights to go to school, own property, vote and even hold public office. Ida was active in protesting these “Jim Crow” laws.
When her parents and a brother died of yellow fever in 1878, Ida supported her siblings by working as a schoolteacher while her Grandma Peggy cared for them during the week. At age 19, after her grandmother’s stroke, other relatives took in her siblings. She was free to follow her own path.
The Move to Memphis
Ida continued her own education, studying for the teacher’s exam for the Memphis city schools and reading the Bible, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott and Shakespeare by fire light. Similar to her first teaching job, Ida worked as a schoolteacher during the week at a country schoolhouse outside Memphis, and returned to the city on weekends to stay with her Aunt Fannie.
On one of her weekly train travels for work, a white conductor refused to take her paid first-class ticket and asked her to move from the woman’s car she always traveled in, to instead sit in the forward car for smokers and blacks. She refused and actually bit the conductor’s hand when he grabbed her.
But three men came and forcibly moved her. Ida got off at the next stop and sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, earning her $500. However, as racism and Jim Crow laws began to openly flourish, the Tennessee Supreme Court reheard her case, reversing the decision and siding with the railroad, costing her $200.
On April 11, 1887, she wrote in her diary:
“I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people.” She prayed in her diary, “ O God, is there no redress, no peace, no justice in this land for us?…Come to my aid at this moment and reach me what to do.” (Welch)
Ida the Journalist is Born
It was in Memphis that Ida began writing for a black-owned newspaper, purchasing a one-third interest in Free Speech and Headlight, owned by Reverend Taylor Nightingale and journalist J.L. Fleming. Her articles highlighted racial inequities, and one critical of black schools and teachers cost Ida her teaching job.
While away on a promotional trip to other states to try to increase Free Speech’s black readership, a horrible incident occurred that profoundly impacted Ida’s life. Her friend, Tom Moss, was lynched. Moss and his two black partners had opened a black store called the People’s Grocery, taking black clientele from a white grocer in town. A group of white men had come to the back door of People’ Grocery and in a shootout, three white men were injured. Moss and the other black storeowners were arrested, dragged from the city jail and shot. When the black community gathered to discuss the incident, a judge ordered the sheriff and his men to shoot if blacks looked like they were causing trouble. Mobs of white shot at blacks, and stole food and destroyed Moss’ store.
Regarding her good friend Thomas Moss, Ida B. Wells wrote:
“A finer, cleaner man than he never walked the streets of Memphis. He was well liked, a favorite with everybody; yet he was murdered with no more consideration that if he had been a dog…The colored people feel that every white man in Memphis who consented in his death is as guilty as those who fired the guns which took his life.”
“…with the aid of the city and county authorities and the daily papers, that white grocer had indeed put an end to his rival Negro grocer as well as to his business.”
— Ida B. Wells, In Crusade for Justice, 1892
Ida went into action. In an article for Free Speech, she decided to hit where it would hurt the whites most—economically—urging blacks to leave Memphis and to go where they could own land, like in Oklahoma.
The Start of Ida’s Anti-Lynching Campaign
Because of her friend’s murder, Ida began a life-long quest to expose lynchings for what they were—a violent attempt to intimidate and control blacks. She investigated lynchings of black men accused of rape, interviewing the families and the accusers. Her findings concluded that the men were innocent and she implied in her article that the white women had been attracted to the black men, falling in love.
The idea that black men were having consensual relations with white women incensed white readers, driving a group of white men to destroy the paper’s office. Though Ida was out of town, she learned that a group of white men lay in wait and planned to hang her in front of the courthouse. She could not return to Memphis.
On to the Big Apple
Invited to write for the New York Age, a black newspaper run by T. Thomas Fortune, Ida’s first article, “Exiled”, detailed the black men lynched for rapes they did not commit. Extra copies were printed and distributed across the country, including 1,000 copies sold in Memphis. (Welch)
She spoke out about lynchings at Lyric Hall and at black women’s clubs on the East coast, and even to an all-white audience in Boston. She relayed facts from her research, including the finding that most of the black men lynched were accused of raping a white woman, even though the white newspapers themselves reported that the men murdered were only charged one-third of the time. Further, she concluded that some of the men were lynched for other reasons—robbery, arguing with a white man or making threats. One man merely talked back while drunk, costing him his life.
A lynching in Paris, Texas, where the accused had been burned alive before a cheering crowd, outraged two female Europeans, Isabelle May of Scotland and Catherine Impey of England. They invited Ida to speak overseas. Having gotten little action from white politicians, Ida felt that if Britain put pressure on the United States, Americans could no longer ignore the injustices happening at home.
Blacks and the White City
Upon her return from Europe, the Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago. She and Frederick Douglass were among black leaders who strongly objected to the lack of black representation in the planning of and participation in the grand event. She, Douglas and future husband Ferdinand Barnett created a pamphlet for foreign visitors explaining Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was passed out to over 20,000 visitors to the Exposition. Ida also objected to the “Colored American Day,” a day set aside by Fair organizers for blacks only, where 2,000 watermelons would be distributed. Ida boycotted attending.
Ida Moves to Chicago for Good
Ida’s new writing job was for the Chicago Conservator, the oldest black paper in Chicago. Its editor and founder? Ferdinand L. Barnett, a widower and father of two small sons, and the man she would marry in 1895. They would have four children of their own.
Also in 1895, Wells published her book: A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Cause of Lynchings in the United States. She used her scrupulous records and interviews to document the atrocities.
After a second trip to England, her anti-lynching efforts began to bare fruit. British groups condemned the murders and Brits formed the London Anti-Lynching Committee. She accepted invitations to speak in California to white and black audiences, gaining support from white ministers, but still not garnering the universal support of the black community. After attending the second meeting of the National Association of Colored Women and campaigning for Republicans during the 1896 Illinois elections, Ida retired to take care of her and Ferdinand’s sons, Charles and Herman.
Back in the Limelight
Her retirement was short-lived. In 1898, a black postmaster’s house was set ablaze killing him and his infant son inside. Whites shot his family as they raced out of the burning home.
Money was raised to send Ida to Washington, D.C. She spoke to President William McKinley about the murder, and tried in vain to get Congress to provide money for widow and remaining children, as the man was a public employee; but when war was declared on Spain, Congress and the President moved attention to the conflict.
Ida still wanted to send a strongly worded message to Washington from the National Afro-American Council, but the Council had split—some following Brooker T Washington and his approach to job training for blacks, and others, like Ida, wanting a more radical approach, protesting Southern “Jim Crow” laws. The final letter was a much more watered-down version than what Ida had recommended.
Trouble in Illinois
Ida and Ferdinand, now with four children of their own, moved into a white neighborhood in Chicago. White neighbors raced inside and slammed their doors when the Barnetts sat on their own porch. A gang of white neighborhood boys often attacked the Barnett children, until Ida stepped in. Her words stopped the gang, but the knowledge that she had a gun in the house may have been the final deterrent—a gun she’d had since the threat in Memphis.
In Springfield, Illinois in 1908, a race riot broke out spurred by accusations that two black men had committed crimes—one murdering a white man and one raping a white women. Black homes and businesses were burned and three black men lynched, though innocent of any crimes.
The riot raised great concern for Ida, so she formed the Negro Fellowship League, and was part of the forming of another group to protect and advance life for black people: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The Association, made up of whites and blacks, demanded civil rights be guaranteed to all people—a far cry from the urgings of Ida to demand the U.S. government condemn lynching and make it a national crime.
Another lynching in 1909, garnered the Barnett’s’ attention. A black homeless man in Cairo, Illinois named “Frog” James, was arrested and hanged after a white woman was found dead in an alley. His body was shot with 500 bullets and dragged through town. Ferdinand urged black leaders to speak to the governor to enact a law so officers of the law could be fired for allowing the murder of prisoners in their custody. No one volunteered. In the end, it was Ida who went, urged by her husband and their 13-year-old son Charles who said that if she didn’t go, who would? (Welch)
Again she went to the scene of the crimes and interviewed blacks resident and read all newspaper accounts. Her findings? The Sheriff had not protected James. The only person of color at the hearing for the sheriff, she made an impassioned speech. People were moved. The sheriff was not re-instated, and the governor denounced lynchings and moving forward, required that sheriffs call the governor’s office for troops if racially motivated mobs were forming. It was a victory for Ida and for Illinois’ blacks.
The Next Illinois Race Riot
In 1918, a race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois caused almost one million dollars in damage and cost 150 black men their lives. Again, Ida left to investigate, ignoring warnings from the train engineer who told her it was unsafe. In a guarded Red Cross truck, she accompanied black women back to their homes. Some homes had been burned to the ground; others looted, with pianos, furniture and bedding destroyed. But perhaps the most disturbing finding was that soldiers had stood by and watched as blacks were attacked.
Upon her return to Chicago, and with the support of the Bethel A.M.E. Church, Ida and a group of church members went to the governor to report on the behavior of the soldiers. The governor wanted testimony; but, thousands of blacks had already fled East St. Louis, and the remaining were too fearful of retribution or of causing new tensions. In the end, all Ida was able to do was raise money for the defense of a black dentist, sentenced to life in prison for leading a group of black to get guns for their own defense. Bundy was eventually set free.
Tensions in Chicago
Now, racial violence was rising in her own city. Throughout white neighborhoods in Chicago, the homes of black residents were being bombed, as were the homes of realtors who had negotiated the sales. In all 25 homes were bombed, including a home just down Grand Boulevard from where the Barnetts lived.
In a letter published in the Chicago Tribune, Ida warned that Chicago was headed toward a race riot of its own unless city officials did something to quell the simmering racial tensions. Unfortunately, her warning went unheeded.
The Chicago Race Riots of 1919
On Sunday July 27th, some young black men ventured into “white waters” on a raft in Lake Michigan and were stoned, causing one of the young men to drown. After a scuffle on the beach, the police arrived, but refused to arrest, the white man accused of throwing the stone. A shot was fired by a black man at police, who fired back. The riot had begun.
Gangs of young white “hoodlums” attacked blacks in the streets, on streetcars and on their way home from work. Whites drove in cars, shooting into groups of blacks. Blacks attacked white storekeepers in black neighborhoods.
Some blacks defended their streets and homes. The 8th regiment came together to deter whites, taking position and sharpshooting at whites, and also shooting police as many officers had not come to their defense or had even participated in the mayhem. Many blacks stayed behind locked doors in their homes. Yet Ida walked the streets gathering facts. She was troubled that the blacks were being accused and arrested in disproportionate numbers to whites, and wanted to avoid the same inequitable outcome of the East St. Louis riots where fifteen black men had been sentenced to long prison sentences simply for defending themselves.
The rampages went on for days, and despite pleas by Ida and other black leaders, Mayor Bill Thompson refused to send in the National Guard and the governor would not intercede. After four days of violence and the burning of homes, the Mayor finally relented, and the National Guard restored order. The ending result was the deaths of 23 blacks and 15 whites, and the injury of 342 blacks, 178 whites and 17 of undetermined race.
Dallas businessman and NAACP member Charles R. Graggs compared the northern cities to Brutus, who betrayed Julius Caesar. “Thou, too, North, an enemy of the Negro,” he lamented. (McWhirter)
The Slayings in Elaine Arkansas
The violence in Elaine was deep—about 200 hundred blacks and forty whites were killed. (Though more recent estimates put the blacks killed at over 400.) The trouble started when a group of blacks met to discuss their overdue cotton payments. Whites accused the black of plotting to murder whites and the town’s sheriff went to the church, defended by men on guard. Accounts vary as to who shot first, but a white man was killed, spurring a murderous rampage by the whites. Of the blacks arrested, twelve were sentenced to die by electric chair.
Ida interceded by leading a committee to write letters of protest to the president and to the governor of Arkansas. Letters to the governor said there’d be a movement by blacks to leave Arkansas if the men were put to death. Fearful of losing valuable labor, the governor called a group of whites and blacks together to discuss the matter, with the group concluding the men had not received a fair trial. The governor ordered a new trial.
A letter by Ida in the Chicago Defender asked for help with the men’s defense fees. Money came in from all over the country. In January 1922, Ida went to Little Rock, Arkansas, and visited the jail where the men were held by hiding in a group of wives and mothers of the accused.
The men were grateful and surprised to see her. It was still dangerous for her to be in the south after her life had been threatened if she returned to Memphis. The men told her they’d been beaten and given electric shocks to get them to admit to plotting to kill whites and take their property, though they had never made such plans. Further, a mob had tried to break into the jail to lynch them. The men sang to Ida about dying and forgiving their enemies; but Ida told them to pray to live and believe that God would set them free.
She returned to Chicago and wrote a pamphlet about the Arkansas riot. A year later, the men were freed.
The Suffrage Movement
As long as she had lived in Illinois, Ida had been a member of the Women’s Suffrage Association of Illinois. But she was the only black woman member, so she urged others to join the fight to help their race with their votes. Many husbands preferred their wives stay home, so Ida suggested that they tell their husbands they wanted to help elect a black man to the city council.
In 1913, white and black women were allowed to vote in city elections. Together, white and black women marched to protest for their right to vote in national elections. And when the National Women’s Suffrage Association planned its march on Washington, D.C. on March 3, Ida marched with the thousands of white women from Illinois, despite association leaders fearing her presence would anger the southern white women.
Ida was friends with Susan B. Anthony, staying at her home on at least two occasions. Although they agreed on the Suffrage Movement, they disagreed on how to gain votes for black women. Anthony felt that the white female vote should come first, and votes for women would follow. Ida believed in attacking the issue simultaneously.
Ida Was Not Without Her Detractors
Some in the black community felt Ida was too radical and outspoken. Some blacks felt she had deserted the cause by marrying and having children. Others felt that protests were ineffective. She had gained a reputation as a “hothead” from the National Afro-American Council. And some were jealous, like the president of the National Association of Colored Women in Chicago, who one year refused to invite Ida to the meeting for fear Ida would steal the show and the association’s presidency.
Her ardent advocate, Frederick Douglas had died the year she’d married, and even her long-time friend and supporter, Susan B. Anthony, chided her for getting married and taking her focus from protests on blacks’ mistreatment.
Yet Ida had never given up her causes. She was passionate and vocal in her beliefs.
A Lifetime of Advocacy and Achievement
Ida B. Wells-Barnett can be credited with bringing national and international attention to the issue of lynching and in bringing about the change that helped stop these murders. She advocated for the rights of blacks and of women, helping to gain the right to vote for all American women and continuing to cite cases of injustice and discrimination in her journalism.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett died on March 25, 1931 at the age of 69.
Welch, Catherine A.; Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Powerhouse with a Pen; Carolrhodabooks; copyright 2000 by Catherine A. Welch
About.com; Ida B. Wells: Crusading Journalist Campaigned Against Lynching in America; http://hisotry1800s.about.com/od/10th-Century-Journalism/fl/Ida-B-Wells.htm
About.com-Womens history; Ida B. Wells Facts; http://womenshistory.about/com/od/wellsbarnett/a/ida_b_wells.htm
Heinemann, Sue; The New York Public Library: Amazing Women in American History; John Wiley & Sons/A Stonesong Press Book
Krist, Gary; City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago; Crown, 2012
Lewsi, Femi; Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Anti-Lynching Advocate; updated November 2, 2015
McWhirter, Cameron; Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America; St. Martin’s Griffin; copyright 2011 Cameron WhcWhirter
Wells, Ida B.; The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States; 1895
Lynching Sites Project Memphis; lychingsitesmem.org