Ida B. Wells shone light in the darkness

This is the nineteenth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

Investigative journalists have it rough. First off, it takes a ton of research to uncover the truth. Triple that if the subject is something folks really don’t want you investigating. Then there are the smear campaigns, threats of violence, intimidation, and (in some cases) actual violence committed against these reporters. With that in your head, imagine being Ida B. Wells, a Black former slave (and woman) reporting on lynchings throughout the South after Emancipation. Brave doesn’t even begin to describe her.

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was born into slavery, but freed under the Emancipation Proclamation. When her parents and brother died from yellow fever, she took a job as a schoolteacher in a Black elementary school in Holly Springs, Mississippi in order to support herself and her four siblings. When her paternal grandmother—who had been helping care for the children—and her sister Eugenia also died, she decided to relocate the family to Memphis, Tennessee where the pay was a bit better.

In 1884, Wells had a run-in with a train conductor who ordered her to give up her seat in the first class ladies car and move to an overcrowded smoking car. She refused—as was her right under the Civil Rights Act of 1875—and was dragged from the car by two men and the aforementioned conductor. Pissed as hell, understandably, she wrote about it for a Black church weekly called The Living Way and hired a Black lawyer in Memphis to help her sue the railroad. When they bought him off, she hired a white attorney and eventually won her case (and $500). The railroad appealed, naturally, and the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the decision and ordered her to pay the court fees.

And so began Wells’ activism in the form of journalism. While still teaching, she began writing articles attacking Jim Crow laws in The Living Way under the pen name “lola”. Two years after the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against her, she became editor and co-owner of The Free Speech and Headlight, a Black-owned newspaper based out of the Beale Street Baptist Church. Two years after that, her critical articles got her dismissed by the Memphis Board of Education.

In 1892, a good friend of Wells was among a group of Black men lynched by a mob of 75 men in masks, prompting her to declare that Black people should leave Memphis:

There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.

Driven by this horrific event, she began to interview people associated with lynchings, investigative journalist style. One of her first included an interview with a father who had implored a lynch mob to kill the Black man who his young white daughter was sleeping with. When she called out the lie that Black men rape white women in an editorial, her newspaper office was burned to the ground. Unsurprisingly, she left Memphis.

Later that year, she published a pamphlet called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Through her investigations, she concluded that Southerners used accusations of rape to mask their fears over Black economic progress and competition.

Three years later, in The Red Record, she chronicled the history of lynchings since the Emancipation Proclamation. In it, she proposed that during slavery, whites didn’t commit as many lynchings because slaves were a valuable commodity, but noted that by 1895 “ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, [through lynching] without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution.” Her 100-page pamphlet included statistics, charts, and graphic accounts of lynchings, much of which was sourced from reporting by white writers in white newspapers. This document, and Southern Horrors, had a far-reaching influence on discussions of lynching, especially in the North, where it was not as familiar an occurrence.

Despite her best efforts, Wells didn’t feel her work was doing enough to affect change and criminalize lynchings. She felt that armed resistance was the only true defense. Fredrick Douglass often praised (and funded) Wells’ work, but upon his death in 1895—and at the height of her notoriety—she wasn’t considered for leadership in the civil rights movement. Perhaps it was the fact that she was a woman, but many in the movement also considered her a radical. Case in point, in her autobiography Wells stated that W.E.B. Du Bois deliberately excluded her from the list of the NAACP’s founders.[1]

After Memphis, Wells settled in Chicago and continued her fight against lynchings. She also continued her investigative work as a journalist, writing on a number of topics including the East St. Louis Race Riots that led to the death of up to 250 Black people and left over 6,000 more homeless. She traveled south again to cover the Elaine Race Riot in Arkansas that led to the deaths of as many as 237 Black people (and only five white men).

She was heavily involved in women’s suffrage, was placed under surveillance during World War I as a “race agitator,” and was instrumental in the effort to block Chicago’s plan to segregate its schools. Ida B. Wells left an incredible legacy when she died in 1931, the ripples of which have touched pretty much every push for civil rights in America.

  1. In his own autobiography, Du Bois claimed she didn’t want to be included. ↩︎


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