Ida Wells-courtesy Library of Congress
Ida Wells was born a slave in 1862. Her earliest memory was of walking to Pine Bluff, Arkansas with her parents after the end of the civil war so that her father, a skilled carpenter, could find work. Throughout Reconstruction Ida’s family lived a middle-class existence. Her father had plenty of work. Ida’s mother had five more children. Ida recalled in her autobiography Crusade for Justice that her family had contact with her grandfather, her father’s former owner, who treated his mixed-race son more like a son than a slave because he did not have any other children. That all changed when Ida’s father voted Republican against his father’s wishes. Ida’s life changed when her parents died of yellow fever. She became the head of the household for her five brothers and sisters. She trained to be a teacher and took a job in Memphis at a segregated school. While traveling aboard a train to attend a teacher’s conference, Ida was forcibly removed from the first-class car while white passengers cheered. She successfully sued the railroad and won in a lower court, but the case went to the Tenessee Supreme Court after Reconstruction was over, so she was found to have been using the case for“harassment” and forced to pay court costs of $200.
Wells found that she loved newspaper work once she started writing for her church newspaper. Eventually, She became editor of The Free Speech newspaper in Memphis. During the early 1890’s Ida’s friends Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Lee Stewart opened a grocery store in Memphis at a place called The Curve, where the new electric light rail line curved. They called their business The People’s Grocery Store. The men were in direct competition with a white grocery store owner. The neighborhood around the curve was a Negro neighborhood so the white store owner lost business. One day a fight broke out after some white boys and some black boys got into an argument over a game of marbles. The black boys beat the white boys. That night a white mob attacked the Negro grocery store and took its three owners out of town where they were tortured, shot and lynched.
Ida had found her calling as a journalist. For the next twenty-five years, she would tirelessly advocate for an end to lynching. In her newspaper, Ida challenged the white authorities of Memphis to arrest the men who murdered her friends. Since the authorities did nothing, she encouraged black families to move west. Many of them did. The city’s railroad operators relied on Negro labor. As a result of Ida’s encouraging black families to move the railroad company developed a labor shortage. The railroad managers met with Ida to beg her to stop encouraging blacks to leave town. Ida refused. In her autobiography she explains her reasoning:
This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse
to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus
keep the race terrorized and “keep the nigger down.”
She refused to stop writing about the lynching of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart and soon began investigating every lynching she heard of. To her surprise, every single lynching that had occurred during the past three months had started as something else but was then told to the public as having to do with rape. Ida, whose own father was the product of a union between a white slave owner and his slave, printed an editorial about what she knew to be the truth: that white women sometimes had affairs with black men, just as white men sometimes had affairs with black women. This was too much for the white people of Memphis to bear. Her newspaper office was attacked and her printing press was destroyed by an angry white mob. A price was put on her head. She left Memphis for New York.
In New York, Ida wrote about the south for The New York Age newspaper. She was given the opportunity to speak at some newly created women’s’ clubs. These were important organizations created by and for women so that they could hear lectures and act upon the important issues of the day. Ida would later be influential in helping to found the first African-American women’s clubs.
Frederick Douglass came to see her. They formed a friendship that would last the remainder of the great man’s life. He was particularly touched that the young woman from Memphis did not mistreat his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass, a white woman who was often scorned by black women who visited him at his home in Rochester, New York.
In 1893 Wells journeyed to England upon a steamship. She was terribly seasick throughout the voyage. After 9 days the ship arrived in Liverpool, England. She was taken in by Mrs.Isabella Mayo, the publisher Anti-Caste, a pamphlet that sought to combat racial prejudice as it existed in the British Empire. Wells gave speeches about lynching and the south’s treatment of Negroes throughout the British Isles. She was amazed that she was able to dine publicly with whites for the first time in her life. For the first time, Ida realized that there were white people she could trust. Ida traveled throughout the British Isles to speak about the evils of lynching in the United States. Despite the positive reception her speeches received, the trip ended on a sour note. One of Mrs.Mayo’s colleagues, Mrs.Impey had written a love letter to a man named Dr.Ferdinands, a man of Indian descent who worked for Anti-Caste. Mrs.Moody, a stern Calvinist, demanded that Ms.Impey be ostracised. Ida refused to do so, pointing out that Mrs.Impey had merely expressed her feelings for the man. Mrs.Mayo called Mrs.Impey a nymphomaniac, a word Ida had never heard before. Then she cut Ida off too. It would be one of many times that Ida’s honesty and outspokenness got her into trouble and kept her from ever being part of a larger organization for long.
Upon returning to the United States Ida struggled with deciding where to live. She was effectively banished from her native south because several men had sworn to shoot her on sight, a sort of southern Infitada for her outspokenness on lynching, which was viewed as an attack on white womanhood due to Ida’s insistence that rape was a pretense for the lynching of black men and that blacks and whites often had consensual affairs.
She traveled to Chicago, Illinois to work with Frederick Douglass on the World’s Fair. Negroes had been excluded from the planning of the event. Mr.Douglass, the leading African-American of his time, had to settle for space to speak at the Haitian exhibit (he had been the U.S. ambassador to Haiti). For Wells, the great irony was that wherever she saw Douglass go at the fair, she observed him being mobbed by white people who wanted to shake his hand.
In 1894 a civil rights minded newspaper called The Inter Ocean arranged for Wells to return to England to drum up support for her anti-lynching campaign. In Liverpool, Ida met the Reverend C.F. Aked who had committed himself to furthering the cause of brotherhood between the races after learning of a lynching while attending the Chicago World’s Fair. She lived with Aked and his wife for six months. For her, the most amazing part of living in Liverpool was how fair-minded and welcoming it was to people of color.
To a colored person who has been reared in the peculiar atmosphere which obtains only in free (?) America, it is like being born into another world, to be welcomed among persons of the highest order of intellectual and social culture as if one were one of themselves.
Here a “colored” person can ride in any sort of conveyance in any part of the country without being insulted; stop in any hotel or be accommodated in any restaurant one wishes without being refused with contempt….The privilege of being once in a country where “A man’s a man for a’that,” is one which can best be appreciated by those Americans whose black skins are a bar to their receiving genuine kindness and courtesy at home.
The fact that she could experience such freedom in Liverpool, the former capital of the British slave trade, gave Wells hope for her own country. A hope that would not be reciprocated in her own lifetime.
Wells had a successful stay in England. She witnessed many British society people sign up for the anti-lynching campaign in the United States. They promised to pressure The Episcopal Church of the United States to get more involved in the issue of civil rights for Negroes. But again Wells faced controversy. The prohibition advocate Miss. Francis Willard was in England at the same time as Ida. Willard had stated that southern women she knew were afraid to go out at night and that lynching may have been a tragic necessity. Wells would have none of this. She battled Willard in the press, which had the effect of alienating some of her white benefactors who were Willard’s personal friends. Wells accused Willard of segregating her Temperance organization (it was segregated in the south- as was everything else). Willard played down her comments and the fact that her organization was segregated.
Wells returned to the United States in November 1894. She lived in Rochester, New York with Susan B.Anthony, the renowned women’s’ suffragist. Anthony was clear-eyed about the racist sentiment that existed throughout the United States. She recalled that she had allowed women’s suffrage groups to segregate as a matter of political expedience. Wells expressed her opinion that Anthony had been mistaken. Anthony accepted Wells’ opinion. Anthony maintained the world would be better when women got the vote. Wells questioned this, remarking that women had a tendency to have “a petty outlook on life.” Despite their differences, the two women remained friends. Both were saddened when Frederick Douglass passed away in 1895. Anthony because Douglass had been the only man to attend her first women’s suffrage convention in 1848. Wells because she believed Douglass to be “the greatest man the Negro Race has ever produced.”
Ida toured the United States throughout 1895 in an effort to gain support for her anti-lynching campaign. She had published a documentary of all the lynchings committed in the United States for 1892,1893 and 1894. At the end of the year, she was broke and exhausted.
She happily decided to accept the hand of Attorney Ferdinand.L.Barnett of Chicago, which had been offered to her before she had gone to England. Ida and Ferdinand had four children, one of whom they gave the middle name Aked after Ida’s favorite minister. Despite the fact that she was the mother of young children Ida remained involved in civil rights causes. Her work would be doubly difficult in the face of the United States Government’s acquiescence to the racism of its white population when The 1896 Supreme Court Decision in Plessy V. Ferguson found segregation to be legal. For the next 58 years, the federal government of the United States would more often be in support of the rights of white bigots than of the rights of its citizens of color.