A native of Holly Springs, Ida Bell Wells, an African American teacher and pioneer antilynching crusader, developed her gender and race consciousness as she lived and traveled throughout Mississippi as a journalist for the Free Speech, a newspaper she co-owned and edited.
From her days as a rural schoolteacher outside of Holly Springs in 1877 to her public exile from Memphis, Tennessee, in 1892 for writing an editorial articulating that white women willingly had sexual intercourse with black men, Wells frequently traveled to and resided in areas such as Greenville, Natchez, Mound Bayou, Water Valley, and Vicksburg. During these formative Mississippi years, Wells strengthened political relationships with prominent African American politicians such as Mississippi secretary of state James Hill and Mound Bayou founder Isaiah Montgomery. In addition, in her editorials in the Free Speech, she sharpened her political critique of racial injustices and politics. For example, she criticized Montgomery’s conciliatory position on restrictions aimed at minimizing black suffrage at the 1890 Mississippi Convention. Furthermore, during these years Wells maximized her father’s Masonic fraternal ties to solicit subscriptions for her newspaper.
Born to enslaved parents James and Elizabeth Wells on 16 July 1862, Ida Wells intertwined her parents’ memories of slavery and religious convictions, her father’s modeling of political activism, and her political relationships to inform a criticism that fueled her demand for racial equity and respectability. As a child, Wells frequently overheard her parents discuss race. The son of a black woman and a white slave owner, native Mississippian Jim Wells witnessed the whipping of his mother, Peggy. He was never beaten or sold. However, his father took him to Holly Springs, away from his mother, to learn carpentry. He earned a reputation of being a solid carpenter, an occupation he would use to bolster his independence from whites after emancipation. On the other hand, a native Virginian and daughter of a part-Indian father and slave mother, Lizzie and her siblings met the auction block several times before arriving in Holly Springs. She repeatedly told her children about the whippings she received as a slave. From stories told by others, Wells vicariously experienced slave women choosing death or sale before succumbing to sexual exploitation. On Sundays her parents permitted only the reading of the Bible. Therefore, she had read the Bible several times in her youth and adult years. Later in her newspaper columns and antilynching publications, she invoked biblical imagery to persuade and gain support from those influenced by Judaism and Christianity. Furthermore, Jim Wells often had Ida read to him and other black men the political news from local papers. Wells recalled later that she heard of the Ku Klux Klan before she knew what it meant. The political agency of her father and the religious convictions of her mother were central to shaping her racial and gender politics, particularly her reactions to a series of life-altering events.
Orphaned at age sixteen by a 1878 yellow fever epidemic, Wells trekked from her grandmother’s farm in Tippah County to Holly Springs, against the advice of older relatives, to evaluate the status of her five remaining siblings. When she arrived, she learned that the condition of her mother had worsened after she received poor medical advice from an Irish nurse—the same nurse who had purportedly gone through her father’s pockets after he died. Going against the Masons’ custodial expectations, Wells became guardian to her siblings. To support the family, she passed a teacher’s examination and taught at a rural school outside of Holly Springs. Inheriting a house and three hundred dollars, she took care of her siblings with her twenty-five dollar monthly salary and produce supplied by her students’ parents until she moved to Memphis in 1882–83. She later explained that she wrote plainly because her days as a rural teacher taught her that many blacks had limited formal education. Under the name Iola, she took pride in her ability to use one-syllable words to help readers understand her editorials.
A railroad incident outside Memphis and the ensuing legal battle launched her career in journalism. In 1884 Wells received a five-hundred-dollar judgment from the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, which had refused to honor her first-class ticket. Before three white males forcibly removed her from a racially segregated car reserved for ladies, Wells bit and fought the men, much to the chagrin of white passengers, who applauded the actions of the white males. The company appealed the case in 1887 and won a reversal of the judgment, forcing Wells to pay two hundred dollars in court costs. Yet through her editorials about the railroad case and other issues in the African American community, she gained a loyal following. African American newspaper editor T. Thomas Fortune of the New York Age wrote that Wells had “plenty of nerve” and that if she were a man she “would be a humming independent in politics.” Fellow African American editor Lucy W. Smith heralded Wells as possessing unmatched talents: “No writer, the male fraternity not excepted, has been more extensively quoted nor struck harder blows at the wrongs and weaknesses of the race.”
To hire correspondents and to secure subscriptions for the Free Speech, Wells frequently traveled to Mississippi from Tennessee. On one occasion in Vicksburg, Wells forced a prominent pastor to apologize publicly from his pulpit for implying that she and other southern women had questionable virtue. Confronting him in front of other men, she told him that because she had no father or brother to protect her, she needed to safeguard her good name.
In 1892 Wells was in Natchez when she received news of the lynching of three educated black grocery store owners. One of the men lynched was the father of her godchild. The timing of the lynching was crucial. In 1891 Wells had lost a teaching position in Memphis after writing an editorial that criticized the conditions of African American schools and the character of some of her colleagues, leaving her free to pursue her passion for journalism full time. Wells reacted to the Memphis lynching by writing an editorial encouraging migration. Coming of age in Mississippi, Wells heard stories ranging from a voting dispute that precipitated her father’s opening of a carpentry shop across the street from his former white employer to black resistance to slavery and unfair politics. Therefore, Wells’s response to the Memphis lynching, which is credited for catapulting her onto the national and international spotlight, developed from her reaction to injustices she had seen and experienced in Mississippi.
Wells left Memphis and the South to escape violence from opponents of her editorials, moving to Chicago in 1892. She campaigned energetically against lynching, writing books such as A Red Record and Southern Horrors to dispute lynching supporters’ claims that most African American victims of lynchings had been accused of violence against white women. Her work included long lists of the actual accusations—mostly petty crimes—that lynching victims actually faced. In Chicago she married lawyer and editor Ferdinand Lee Barnett and put much of her reformer’s energy into work at settlement houses, support for suffrage, and clubwork.
Wells-Barnett died on 25 March 1931. Among the many memorials to her life is her childhood home in Holly Springs, which now houses a museum of African American history.
- Lee D. Baker, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Passion for Justice (1996), http://people.duke.edu/~ldbaker/classes/AAIH/caaih/ibwells/ibwbkgrd.html
- Jacquelyn Jones Royster, ed., Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900 (1997)
- Patricia Schechter, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform (2001)
- Stephanie Shaw, What a Woman Ought To Be and Do: Black Professional Women during the Jim Crow Era (1996)
- Sarah Silkey, Black Woman Reformer: Ida B. Wells, Lynching, and Transatlantic Activism (2015)
- Ida B. Wells, The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells: An Intimate Portrait of the Activist as a Young Woman, ed. Miriam DeCosta-Willis (1995)
- Ida B. Wells, A Red Record: On Lynching (2002); Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, ed. Alfreda M. Duster (1970)
- Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994 (1999)