Ida B Wells: Long Overdue Salute

Story originally appeared on the July 22 newsletter of

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931), more commonly known as Ida B. Wells, was an investigative journalist, educator, and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She arguably became the most famous black woman in America, during a life that was centered on combating prejudice and violence.

Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War, she lost both her parents and a sibling in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, when she was 16 years old. She went to work and kept the rest of the family intact with the help of her grandmother. She moved with some of her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, where she found better pay as a teacher. Soon she co-owned a newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech, and Headlight.

In the 1890s, Wells documented lynching in the United States. She showed that lynching was often used in the South as a way to control or punish black people who competed with whites, rather than being based on criminal acts by black people, as was usually claimed by whites. For her reporting, which was carried nationwide in black newspapers, her newspaper presses were destroyed by a mob of white men.

Subjected to continuing threats, Wells left Memphis for Chicago. In Chicago, she married and had a family, but with the support of her husband still pursued her work writing, speaking, and organizing for civil rights for the rest of her life. As an outspoken, activist black woman, at a time when being black or a woman was often held against someone in public life, Wells also faced sometimes disapproval, both from the more traditional leaders of the black civil rights movement and from the more traditional leaders of the rights for women movement.

Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, several months before United States President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate-held territory. Her parents James Wells and Elizabeth “Lizzie” (Warrenton) Wells had eight children. Ida’s father was a master at carpentry; after the Civil War he was known as a “race man” who worked for the advancement of black people. A religious woman, Elizabeth Wells was very strict with her children. Both of Ida’s parents were active in the Republican Party during Reconstruction.

Ida attended Shaw like her father, but she was expelled for rebellious behavior after confronting the college president. During her summer vacations, she attended summer sessions at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville. She also attended Lemoyne-Owen College, a historically black college in Memphis. She held strong political opinions and provoked many people with her views on women’s rights. At 24, she wrote, “I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge.”

On May 4, 1884, a train conductor ordered Wells to give up her seat in the first-class ladies car and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. The year before, the Supreme Court had ruled against the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which had banned racial discrimination in public accommodations). This verdict supported railroad companies that chose to racially segregate their passengers.

When Wells refused to give up her seat, the conductor and two men dragged her out of the car. Wells gained publicity in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train. While teaching elementary school, Wells was offered an editorial position for the Evening Star in Washington, DC. She wrote under the pen name “Iola,” gaining a reputation for writing about the race issue. In 1889, she became co-owner and editor of Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregation newspaper that was started by the Reverend Taylor Nightingaleand was based at the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis.

The murder of her friends drove Wells to research and document lynchings and their causes. She began investigative journalism by looking at the charges given for the murders, which officially started her anti-lynching campaign. Wells found that black people were lynched for such social control reasons as failing to pay debts, not appearing to give way to whites, competing with whites economically, and being drunk in public.

Ald. Sophia King to rename Congress Parkway in honor of journalist, suffragette and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells

She published her findings in a pamphlet entitled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She followed this with an editorial that suggested that unlike the myth that white women were sexually at risk of attacks by black men, most liaisons between black men and white women were consensual.

Her editorial enraged white men in Memphis. Their responses in two leading white newspapers, The Daily Commercial and The Evening Scimitar, were brimming with hatred; “the fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome…calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of southern whites. On May 27, 1892, a white mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight. Because of the threats to her life, Wells left Memphis altogether and moved to Chicago.

She continued to investigate lynching incidents and the ostensible causes in the cases and to write columns attacking Southern injustices. Her articles were published in black newspapers, like The New York Age. In 1893, Wells began writing for the newspaper, The Chicago Conservator, which had ties to her future husband, Ferdinand Lee Barnett. She later purchased a partial ownership in the publication.

Finally, in Chicago, people have decided that it’s time to honor an amazing woman who vision and courageous efforts far exceeds any of theirs, unfortunately. But Ida B. Wells will soon have not only a street but a well-traveled expressway that links drivers to all directions in Chicago. Here is the statement from the select City Council members to present Ida B’s new roadway to salute her progressive movement:

The Chicago City Council Transportation Committee unanimously advanced a proposal by Ald. Sophia King (4th) to rename Congress Parkway in honor of journalist, suffragette and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells. If passed by the whole Council, the downtown stretch of the Parkway will be renamed *Ida B. Wells Drive. Alderman Brendan Reilly* also served as co-sponsor.

“It’s appropriate that the first street named after a woman and/or person of color [in] downtown Chicago is Ida B. Wells,” said King in a posted statement. “We all stand on her shoulders!” Congress Parkway runs downtown from Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park through the Old Chicago Main Post Office to the (Jane Byrne) or Circle, Interchange. The thoroughfare, a key component of the 1909 Burnham Plan, is considered to be an early masterwork of urban planning. Attempts to rename Balbo Drive for Wells have long failed in the face of organized opposition by Italian-American groups.

Formerly 7th Street, it was renamed for the Italian fascist Italo Balbo during the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair. Ald. Reilly expressed that Chicago’s rich Italian history offers “a wealth” of opportunities to honor Italians who don’t have fascist links. He mentioned nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi or St. Frances Cabrini, who ministered to Chicago’s Italian immigrant population, as potential candidates for street naming.

“Recognition of Ida B. Wells-Barnett is long overdue in the city of Chicago. The crusading journalist was a century ahead of her time. Her impact on methods of investigative journalism while documenting government-sanctioned lynching in America, women’s rights, civil rights and politics are still relevant today. Naming a street for Ida B. Wells is the least we should do to honor her legacy.” Delmarie Cobb, Founder of the Ida B. Wells Legacy Committee, a political action committee whose mission is to develop the next generation of progressive African-American women candidates.

NOTE: There is one woman who presently reminds me of Wells-Barnett, and that’s the publisher of The Chicago Crusader, Dorothy Leavell. May she stay as strong and committed to truth and justice as Ida has over her lifespan. – MG Media