Ida

                                     

Ida Wells-courtesy Library of Congress

idawell2.jpg  Ida Wells

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 existance. 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 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 succesfully 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 famillies 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 autobiograpy she explains her reasoning:

                                This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was.An excuse

                                to get rid of Negroes who were aquiring 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 womens’ 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 womens’ 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 postivie reception her speeches recieved,  the trip ended on a sour note. One of Mrs.Mayo’s collegues, 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 outspokeness 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 outspokeness on lynching, which was viewed as an attack on white womanhood due to Ida’s insistance 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 captial of the British slave trade, gave Wells hope for her own country. Hope that would not be reciprocated in her own lifetime.

Wells had a succesfull 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 invovled in the issue of civil rights for Negroes. But again Wells faced controversy. The prohbition 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 Temprance 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 womens’ 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 tendancy 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 civl rights causes. Her work would be doubly difficult in the face of the United States Government aquiesance 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.

5 Comments

Filed under Radical Civil Rights Leaders of the late 19th and early 20th Century: Ida Wells and William Monroe Trotter

5 responses to “Ida

  1. Katherine Goodman

    Hi, Tom~ You may not remember me, but I was your sixth grade teacher at Scarsdale Junior High! I’ve gotten together with your father a few times since he is a friend of my partner, Tony Monteleone. I have fond memories of teaching you, with your strong intelligence and curiosity. I love this story about Robert Dentler, about whom I knew little, although I taught his son Robin during my first year at Scarsdale, 1971-72. This is a fascinating piece giving the civil rights efforts Prof. Dentler engaged in. I love that the themes of your articles concern racial issues in a town/village that had residents holding varying views. As a resident of West. Co. for the past 36 years, I can say we’re still struggling with racial integration, like too much of the country. Hope to communicate with you again about your website, which is very well done. ~Kathie Goodman

    • I remember you well Ms.G. (Kathie).
      My dad just moved up to Watertown ,MA. A nice assisted living place called Brigham House. he is doing quite well .
      Glad he met you and thanks for reading my work. I am trying to view a case file for the White PlAins desegregation work he did. so I should have another article up in a month or two. your interest in my writing made my day!

  2. Katherine Goodman

    Hi, Tom! So glad to hear back from you! I’ve been meaning to write to you since your dad gave me your website address months ago. Right after I commented about the Dentler story, I gave your address to Tony Monteleone; he just told me he learned from you about your dad’s current situation. I’m so sorry about your dad’s tough health condition. Sounds like you & your brothers have found a good placement for him near you. Please give him my best–he’s such a nice man. Will write more soon. ~Kathie Goodman

  3. Katherine Goodman

    Hi, Tom~

    I just read this fascinating and inspirational sccount of Ida Wells’ life. I have never heard of her and I’m curious about how you discovered her story. It’s amazing that an African-American woman who was born a slave could have become highly educated and developed a career as an outspoken journalist and public advocate to end lynching of black men. Thank you so much for publishing this powerful and little known story!

    I was so impressed by your research and writing about Robert Dentler and also the Scarsdale CC, that I’ve vowed to return to your blog and read more of your pieces. For the past year I’ve been consumed with trying to sell my house–which includes the ridiculous & costly process of “staging.” In the meantime, I’ve purchased a condo where I intend to live–but carrying 2 homes is not easy. I’m in St. Louis now visiting my younger son & finally have some time for catch-up reading!

    My significant other, Tony Monteleone, your father’s fishing buddy, have wondered about your dad’s health. Please write to me about how he is doing. Of course, I’d love to hear about you & your family as well!

    Kathie Goodman

    • Hi Kathie,
      Thanks for reading. My interest in early civil rights advocates has been fostered thru my teaching and by my writing about The Cockburns difficulty living in Edgemont during the 1930’s. Learning about racism in America has been a mystery in history journey for me ever since Costly Grace. That story is personal because my family belonged to The Scarsdale Golf Club. Eric Dentler, Roberts son, was my camp counseler in Maine. he once told me the club was anti-Semitic. I was shocked (I was 13 years old). My best friend Bill Hoynes had just joined the club and his mom was Jewish. but when I got home my parents confirmed that this was true, back in the 60’s neighbors had warned my parents not to sponsor the Hoynes for the club for that reason . When we started doing internet research at Lexington High School in the early 2000’s I found The Holly Ball story in The NY Times and off I went.

      regarding Dad. he is well. we have his dog and he lives at Brigham House, an assisted living place in Watertown,Ma. It is close by and we have him over for lunch most weekends. he has 3 close friends at Brigham House. they are in book club and go out to restaurants and shopping together. His phone # is 914-424-6431. That is his cell. address is tom quirk
      Brigham House
      341 Mr.Auburn Street
      Watertown, Ma 02472

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