If Ida B. Wells-Barnett were alive today, she would no doubt be protesting police brutality against black men and women, joining the millions who are filling the streets of America – and the world – with demands for justice after the recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
But Wells-Barnett lived 100 years ago, and in her time the biggest racial threat was the lynching of black men, especially in the South. As a black journalist, she led a long crusade against lynching by writing and lecturing both in the United States and the British Isles.
This year, Wells-Barnett’s contributions came alive again when she was posthumously awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Special Citations and Awards. She was recognized for “her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
Wells-Barnett was also an ardent suffragist – one of many black women who fought for women’s right to vote.
This month’s article honors her courageous life and achievements.
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was born to slave parents, one year before the Emancipation Proclamation. She was the eldest daughter in a family of eight children. After emancipation, her parents moved the family to Holly Springs, Miss., but when Wells was only 16, both her parents and one sibling died in a yellow fever epidemic. Determined to keep the family together, Wells supported her siblings as a rural teacher for four years before moving to Memphis, Tenn., where her aunt provided a new home for the family.
In Memphis, she continued to teach. In 1884, while traveling by train to her school, she refused to move to segregated seating because it was in the smoking car. She was forcibly removed from the train, sued the railroad and won! However, when the local decision was appealed to the state supreme court, it was reversed – a major disappointment to the young reformer.
A few years later, she also lost her teaching job after she criticized the inferior quality of schools for colored children.
Wells found her strength in journalism, and she became part owner of a small newspaper in Memphis. But in 1892, three black businessmen were lynched in the city, one of them a personal friend. Their grocery store was apparently taking business from a white man’s store. This sad event proved to be a turning point in her life.
Wells wrote a scathing editorial against the lynchers and the white people who condoned the killings, then left town to attend a conference in Philadelphia. While there, she learned that her editorial had caused a riot in Memphis; mobs had wrecked her press and run her partner out of town. Wells was threatened with lynching herself if she returned to the city.
So, she stayed in the North, where she continued her crusade against lynching as an investigative reporter.
In 1894 Wells moved to Chicago and published a detailed history of the lynching of blacks and others since the Emancipation Proclamation. The next year, she married a fellow crusader for African-American rights, Ferdinand Lee Barnett. Barnett was a lawyer and the founder of Chicago’s first Negro newspaper. Wells took the name Wells-Barnett, a very unusual choice for her time.
The couple raised four children, along with two from Barnett’s first marriage, and for several years Ida devoted herself to raising her family.
Wells-Barnett lived in Chicago for the rest of her life. She founded the city’s first black women’s club and the first black kindergarten. She was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Often compared to Joan of Arc by her admirers, Wells-Barnett sharpened her pencil and got to work whenever she saw injustice or inequality. In 1910 she organized the Negro Fellowship League to help recent black migrants from the South. In 1913 she founded the first Negro women’s suffrage group, the Alpha Suffrage Club.
And that brings us to a dramatic moment in the suffrage movement, one that proved yet again that Wells-Barnett was made of incredibly strong stuff.
In 1913, Alice Paul organized a suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as President of the United States. Wilson had not been supportive of women’s right to vote. The parade was a huge affair, with horses, costumes and pageantry. It was organized so that women from individual states would march together.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett arrived with 60 fellow suffragists from Illinois; she was the only black woman among them. There had been considerable discussion among the parade’s organizers about participation by black suffragists, and although Paul wanted to support the black women, she agreed to a compromise to appease Southern suffragists: African-American suffragists could march as a group at the back of the parade.
That was not good enough for Wells-Barnett. She had the support of many of her fellow Illinois suffragists, one of whom said, “We should stand by our principles. If we do not the parade will be a farce.” However, the organizers did not bend.
When the Illinois delegation got into formation, Wells-Barnett was not among them, and her friends thought she had moved to the back of the parade. She was, however, merely waiting in the wings. When the Illinois contingent passed by, she joined them, proudly taking her rightful place alongside her sister suffragists.
Wells-Barnett remained politically active throughout her life, running an unsuccessful race for state senator one year before her death in 1931. In 2018, Chicago named a street after her and activists raised $300,000 to erect a monument to this remarkable American woman.
Sources: Crusade for Justice by Ida B. Wells; Votes for Women by Winifred Conkling, 2018; article by Becky Little in History.com, 2018.