Slice of Cake:
In 1892, a Memphis newspaper threatened her life.
In 1893, the New York Times called her “nasty-minded.”2
In 1894, the Washington Post called her anti-lynching task force the “Committee of Impertinence.”
In 1895, a Chicago newspaper called her “the most widely known woman of her race in the world.”2
Her name is Ida B Wells and she was an agitator.
She reported, organized, investigated, collaborated,
made speeches and made trouble.
She fought for the dignity and rights of her African-American community.
More specifically—and most controversially—her life-long mission
was to bring an end to lynching.
I don’t think I’d heard of Ida B Wells
until one day in 2019 when I sat down in a restaurant
called Ida B’s Table in Baltimore, Maryland
and read a short bio on the back of the menu.16
She’s not nearly as well known as she ought to be.
Nor has she gotten all the credit she clearly deserves.
But Ida B Wells’ lifetime of work has made a difference.
That lynching in the United States began to decline in the mid-1890s2,4
can be attributed, in great part, to Ida B Wells.
That lynching has finally been made a federal hate crime5
can also be attributed, in part, to Ida B Wells.
The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was passed by
both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate and
signed into law by the President of the United States
on March 29, 2022.
Anti-lynching legislation has been introduced to
the United States Congress more than 200 times;
advanced by leaders such as…
the phenomenal Ida B Wells,
which speaks…and I’m going off script for a moment—
about the importance of the Black press, and the
importance of making sure that we have the storytellers
…to tell the truth when no one else is willing to tell it.
– Vice President Kamala Harris5
March 30, 2022
That we still need this legislation—a hundred and fifty years later—
demonstrates the fact that the work Ida B Wells began is far from finished.
Ida B Wells doesn’t come out of nowhere.
She had parents who were very
excited about their new-found freedom.
And she observed her father—
especially his political activism.
– Daphene McFerren6
Ida B Wells was only three years old when the Civil War ended.
When freedom came, she and her parents, Lizzie and James
were living in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Ida was their oldest child. In all, they had 8 children.
James became a trustee for a new school,7 and
Ida and her younger siblings became some of the first students there.
Lizzie went to class alongside her children,
attending until she reached her goal: to be able to read her bible for herself.
In her autobiography, Wells called herself a
“happy, light-hearted schoolgirl” and “a voracious reader.”3
(Though, even in these Black schoolrooms, she found
no books by Black authors or about Black children.)
But Ida B Wells’ first memory wasn’t about school—
it was about newpapers.
James had friends of his come over to the house
…and they asked Ida to read the newspaper to them
because a lot of people were not literate.
– Michelle Duster,
Ida B Wells’ great-granddaughter6
Along with the newspaper, Ida learned about politics
by listening in as her parents and their friends discussed both
the potentials and the dangers of the times.2
By the time Ida reached her teen years, African Americans were holding office
at both the county and Mississippi state level.2
Those years were suffused with hope.
Those years were much too short-lived.
The brief years of Republican rule were a source of
pride to Black families such as the Wellses,
whose attempts to gain a voice in politics had
succeeded against the odds.
They exposed young Ida to a level of
Black political participation and leadership
that would not be seen again in the South until
the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
– biographer Mia Bay2
Ida also saw how worried her mother became
whenever her father attended political meetings at night.3
Ida grew to become a young woman, surrounded by adults who were
experiencing freedom for the first time—and who were
determined to forge a good life for themselves and their children.2
Ida B Wells went on to live a long life of investigative journalism and courageous activism:
in her campaigns against lynching,8
for the rights of women,
for better opportunities of the working class, especially those migrating
from her native rural South into her adopted urban Midwest,14
and for the human rights of all African Americans.
the Pulitzer Prize Committee awarded Ida B Wells
a Special Awards and Citations for her outstanding and
courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence
against African Americans during the era of lynching.9
I began with a quote from Ida B Wells
from the beginning of her 1893 speech.
Here is how Ida B Wells concluded that speech in Boston…
And here—110 years after Ida B Wells’ speech in Boston—
is the Boston Children’s Choir singing Lift Every Voice,10
a popular NAACP anthem from 1900, which Ida B Wells surely sang many times.
I’ve been thinking this week about how intimidated I’ve felt
in trying to write this post.
It was reading the diary that she kept as a young adult that
gave me insights into Ida B Wells the person,
and not just Ida B Wells the icon of social justice.
Her life was so much harder than mine has ever been.
And her courageous acts so much bigger than I’ve ever attempted.
She left her little hometown for the big city when she 17. So did I.
She moved into a crowded home, caring for kids she loved and were family, but weren’t her kids. So did I.
She read and re-read Little Women and Jane Eyre. So did I.
She relished her city life! She went out to music and theater. So did I…
(…though theater meant movies for me; Shakespeare for her.)
She liked going out with boys, but made clear it was too early to marry. So did I.
She even liked games. (She talked about playing whist and parcheesi.) And so do I.
She got herself kicked out of school. …Okay, I never did that!
When she was 17 years old, Ida B Wells was expelled—
and from the very college that her father helped found.7
It’s not exactly clear why Wells was asked to leave… But in her diary,
looking back as an older, wiser 23-year-old,
Wells regretfully recalls some things she said (without giving specifics),
and finds painful her “rememberance of those hateful words.”
Ida B Wells in 1892
University of Chicago Library
The summer she was 16 years old,
Ida B Wells was on a visit with her grandmother in the country
when an epidemic broke out back home in Holly Springs.
Yellow fever killed both of Ida’s parents and her baby brother.
Stepping in after this tragedy, some friends of Ida’s parents
made plans for the children to be adopted out to local families.
But that was before Ida got home.
Upon arrival, she quickly cancelled all the adult’s plans.
Ida was adamant that she and her siblings should stay together
and that she was old enough to care for them.
She remembered hearing stories of the cruelty of slave times, and how
her mother had never forgot the pain of being separated from her family
when she was only 7 years old, and then never seeing them again.6
The adults reluctantly advised her—
if she were truly serious about taking on this reponsibility—
that her best option was to drop out of school and
become a teacher.
Ida lengthened her skirts3 and put up her hair—
as befitted an adult woman of the era.
She passed her teacher’s exam and was assigned a country school.
Statue in Ida B Wells Plaza
unveiled in Memphis 2021
Ida B Wells rode six miles out into the countryside,
on a mule, every Monday morning. And back home again every Friday afternoon.3
Her grandmother came to live with them to lend a hand—
but she was not well enough to stay long.
Ida then moved the family to Tennessee,
after her Aunt Fannie Wells in Memphis offered to help with the children.
Ida B Wells loved her new home—Memphis had plenty of
big city amenities that she’d never experienced in her rural hometown.14
But did she love her new job?… Not really, no.
What she really wanted to do was write—
especially, to write for a newspaper.
She started by joining a literary society of fellow teachers.
Soon she was writing for that group’s newsletter.2
Then she became its editor.
She began to write short essays—anonymous & unpaid—
which she sent to local Black newspapers.
She used a pen name: Iola.
Her articles had titles like: Functions of Leadership, and
Women’s Mission, and Iola on Discrimination.
She tried to write things that would be useful
in a “simple, helpful way.”3
And she was successful.
Not only were her pieces published—
they got re-published in newspapers around the country…
(Though not always with her permission.
Nor was her name always included on the reprint.)2
One editor offered her a dollar a week to write for his paper.
Wells was thrilled to accept.3
Over the next few years she wrote for various newspapers,
and attended a press convention in Washington DC.
Never one to not bite the hand that feeds her14…
One of her articles—published in a Black-owned newspaper—
criticized Black newpapers for not paying writers enough.2
Eventually, Wells decided she could make more money if she published her own work.2
In 1889, at the age of 27, she became co-owner and editor
of The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.2
Ida B Wells had heard about lynchings in other places,
but she believed Memphis was a safe and law-abiding place.1
One event changed her thinking. It also sharpened her pen.
And the editorial she wrote in response to that event changed her whole life.
Wells had a good friend named Thomas Moss—
he and his wife Betty were such good friends that Ida was godmother to their child.
Thomas Moss opened People’s Grocery,
a new store in a predominately Black neighborhood of Memphis.
The store did very well—better, it turns out,
than the older, white-owned grocery store nearby.
Moss began hearing threats of violence and took steps to prepare himself.
Late one night, a group of white men attacked People’s Grocery.
But Moss and his friends were ready, and they successfully defended the store.
The next day, one of the attackers died of gunshot wounds.
Moss and two of his friends were arrested for murder.
Moss expected that they’d be found innocent, since they had
acted in self-defense and were on his own property.
But before the trial could start, the three men taken from the jail by a mob and killed.
Soon afterward, Ida B Wells had planned a short trip—
to attend a church convention in Philadelphia and a visit a newspaper in New York.
Before she left, Wells penned an editorial that strongly condemned lynching.
And mentioned something about white women…
Wells knew that her friends were murdered under the excuse
that they had killed a white man;
but Wells also knew that a more common excuse given for lynchings
was the accusation that a white woman had been raped.
Here is some of the editorial that Wells left with her staff
to be published while she was away…
This editorial caused an enormous backlash in Memphis and beyond.
Several white newspapers threatened the editorial’s writer (initially unknown and presumed male)
with vivid descriptions of torture and death.
When Ida B Wells arrived in New York, she was greeted
by a friend and fellow editor. He said:
“Well, we’ve been a long time getting you to New York,
but now you are here I am afraid you will have to stay.”3
She had no idea what he was talking about.
This was this first she’d heard of her editorial having such an enormous impact.
And it was not long before she heard more:
That her newspaper office had been ransacked and burned to the ground.
That she’d now been identified as the editorial’s author.
And that her life was threatened.
Ida B Wells did not return to Memphis.17
In February 1893, a public lynching in Texas—a particularly gruesome murder
in broad daylight, which had been advertised ahead of time to draw a large crowd—
received wide newspaper coverage afterwards both nationally and internationally.3
In Aberdeen, Scotland, two women read about the Texas lynching.
Catherine Impey was visiting with Isabelle Mayo, a fellow activist.
(The women shared an interest in the rights of East Indians in England.)
Mrs Mayo asked Miss Impey if she knew anyone in the States
who could inform them about the situation in the American South.3
Miss Impey replied: Yes she did, indeed, know someone.
Miss Impey explained that several months earlier, she had met with
Ida B Wells, after hearing a speech by Wells in New York.
Isabelle Mayo then offered to fund a trip to Great Britian—
if Wells would be willing to come.
Write and ask her to come over…
We will find the money for her expenses
and provide opporunity for airing this
– Isabelle F Mayo3
As it happened, the day Ida B Wells received the invitation from Scotland,
she was staying as a guest at the home of Fredrick Douglass and his wife Helen Pitts Douglass.3
When Ida handed Fredrick the letter to read, he said:
“You are the one to go, for you have the story to tell.”
After feeling unheard and underfunded in her own country,
Wells jumped at the chance to take her message abroad.
Ida B Wells traveled to Britian twice—once in 1893, and again in 1894.
Before leaving on her second trip, she contacted a Chicago newspaper—
the only white newspaper she knew that consistently condemned lynching.
After meeting with the editor, Ida B Wells became the first Black American
to travel as a paid correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper.12
Wells toured Scotland, England, and Wales,
she made over a hundred public appearances,
speaking in over-flowing churches and 1000-seat lecture halls.2
[She spoke with]
singular refinement, dignity,
Nor have I ever met any agitator
so cautious and unimpassioned in speech.
But by this marvelous self-restraint itself,
she moved us all the more profoundly.
– a London audience member
after hearing Ida B Wells speak12
Just before the end of her second and final trip,
Wells oversaw the launching of the London Anti-Lynching Committee.
Founding members included editors from the major London newspapers,
over a dozen members of the British Parliament, plus the
the archbishop of Canterbury.12
This new British organization began by petitioning
the governors of American southern states,
as well as writing editorials for American newspapers.
They even sent a delegation on a fact-finding tour of the American South.12
And, perhaps most importantly, they threatened a boycott of US goods.12
The response back in America was… loud.
Southern governors called it “meddlesome interference” by the English.2
The Washington Post called them the “Committee of Impertinence.”2
Ida B Wells was gratified that the issue of lynching
was finally getting more notice and public condemnation.
But back on American soil, she wondered what was next for her?
As it happened, the next year would find her
at home in a new state, publishing her most important work,
and… getting married.
She spoke openly about
sexuality and murder—issues unbecoming
of a lady in the Victorian era.
– Clarissa Myrick-Harris12
What I find so remarkable about Ida B Wells
is that not only did she organize, rally, and speak out against injustice,
she had investigative reporting skills that would be impressive here in the 21st century.
In the 19th century, as a Black woman, they’re astounding.
First she published a pamphlet called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892).
In it she makes the argument that the true reason for lynchings was white people’s response to the
reality of Blacks as full citizens, who vote, travel freely, arm themselves in self-protection,
and own businesses which could out-compete white businesses.
Then Ida B Wells launched a truly incredible fact-finding mission
criss-crossing the Southern states—traveling by train, mule, and horse cart.
(Perhaps she could no longer live in the South,
but she well proved she could travel through there.)
She asked questions, kept rigorous notes, and investigated every lynching she could find.
She scoured white newspapers for stories, interviewed first-person witnesses, and gathered
testimony from the families of victims. Sometimes she even hired private investigators.12
In all, she investigated 728 murders.
Many widowed men would look for a wife who would take over raising his children.
But not Ferdinand L Barnett. When he proposed to Ida in 1894,
he hoped that she would take over the running his newspaper,2
so that he could get on to the business he wanted to do—running for public office.
Ferdinand and Ida had met a year earlier,
when they worked together with Fredrick Douglass on a political pamphlet to distribute
at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.14
They married in June 1895.
But not before the wedding was postponed three times,2
because of Ida’s busy schedule traveling and giving lectures.
Over 500 wedding invitations were sent out.
The engagement was covered in Black-owned newspapers all over the country.
On the wedding day there were more than 2000 people in the streets
disrupting traffic, trying to catch a glimpse of the bride and groom.2
Ahead of her time as always,
the bride chose to hyphenate her name: Mrs Ida B Wells-Barnett.
Ida asked her two younger sisters to come to Chicago for the wedding.
(They’d been living with their Aunt Fannie ever since Ida had left Memphis.)17
She also asked them to be her bridesmaids. Which they did.
(“Beautifully attired in lemon crepe,” according to an Idaho news article.)
Then Ida invited them to stay in Chicago and live with her and Ferdinand.
Because now, finally, she was able to offer them a home.2
Less than a week after the wedding,
Ida not only took over as manager and editor of The Chicago Conservator,
she also bought out her husband and his co-partners to become sole owner.2
Ferdinand Barnett ran for and won the office of assistant state attorney of Illinois—
a position he held for the next 15 years.2
Over the next nine years, the couple had four children.
Wells would..give birth to four children,
whose arrival slowed rather than
stilled her anti-lynching campaign.
– Mia Bay2
In Fall 1896, Wells left for a speaking tour with
6-month-old Baby Charles and a hired nurse.2
Then in 1898, she took Baby Herman to Washington DC for 5 weeks,
where she lobbied Congress and met with President William McKinley—
trying to get a national anti-lynching law passed.12
As the children grew, though, Wells did try to find
more issues in the Chicago area to work on. For instance, starting in 1898,
she led a campaign for early child education for African-American children,
who had been kept out of white kindergartens from long waitlists or high fees.2
And in 1909, it was her oldest son who prodded her
to take up the issue that became her most decisive win.
(More about that below.)
“Half Cup More”
There is an incredible story, late in Ida B Wells’ career,
where she almost single-handedly
put an end to lynching in her adopted state of Illinois.
A law had passed in Illinois, which automatically fired any sheriff who
let a prisoner be taken away by a lynch mob.
Except, of course, there was a loophole which let the disgraced sherriff
petition the governor to get his job back.
That’s what happened in Cairo, Illinois in November 1909.
A sheriff allowed a particularly unpopular prisoner—
Wells3 quotes the locals describing him as “shiftless” and “a worthless sort of fellow”—
to be taken by a mob off from a train and brutally killed.
Wells’ husband, Ferdinand Barnett,
read a newspaper account of this at the family dinner table in Chicago.
Ferdinand said it looked very likely that the governor would
declare the sheriff blameless, and give him his job back.3
Ferdinand said to Ida: “It would seem that you will
have to go to Cairo and get the facts.”3
Ida pointed out that she had already been critized for undermining male Black activists
and “jumping in ahead of them without giving them a chance.”3
She said the time wasn’t convenient for her. And she’d rather let others handle it.
Later that night, after she’d fallen asleep putting her youngest to bed,
Wells was awakened by her oldest son, 13-year-old Charles.
He urged her to change her mind and go to Cairo.
Charles said: “Mother if you don’t go, nobody else will.”3
Ida B Wells did travel to Cairo, Illinois.
What she found there was an uphill battle,
with little support, even from the local Black community.
The sheriff was popular and the lynching victim was
thought to be guilty of the crime he was charged with.
What Wells argued was that no one deserved to be condemned,
and brutally executed, without even a trial.
What’s more, letting this sheriff get away with failing to protect
a prisoner in his care would mean that no prisoner could be safe.
Ida B Wells used the rhetoric of freedom and
universal rights espoused by white colonists
and enshrined in our founding documents
to reveal this nation’s grave hypocrisies.
– Nickole Hannah-Jones15
in The 1619 Project (2021)
The governor (eventually) came to agree with her.
What helped convince him was Wells’ thorough research and understanding of the case.2
His ruling was that the sheriff “did not do all in his power
to protect the prisoners” and he fired the sheriff.
Mob violence has no place in Illinois.
It is denounced in every line of the constitution…
Instead of breeding respect for law; it breeds contempt.
– Illinois Governor Charles S Deneen2
December 7, 1909
If only we had a few men
with the backbone of Mrs Barnett,
lynching would soon come to a halt in America.
– Chicago Defender newspaper
January 1, 1910
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
Legislation to make lynching a federal crime
was first introduced in the United States Congress in the year 1900.
In the 122 years since, anti-lynching legislation has been introduced
to the United States Congress more than 200 times;
advanced by leaders such as James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP.
And, of course, the phenomenal Ida B Wells.
Which speaks, of course, to the role that we have known,
also historically—I’m going off script for a moment—
about the importance of the Black press,
and the importance of making sure that we have
the storytellers always in our community, who we will support
to tell the truth when no one else is willing to tell it.
So today we are gathered to do unfinished business,
to acknowledge the horror in this part of our history,
to state unequivocally that lynching is and has always been a hate crime.
And to make clear that the federal government
may now prosecute these crimes as such.
– Vice President Kamala Harris
Mar 30, 2022
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2024