Ida B. Wells

The city of Memphis following the Civil War was one of high post-war tensions and reeling from the influx of the number of people moving into the city, especially newly-freed slaves taking up residence, starting businesses and finding jobs in Memphis. Their strength as a community grew dramatically in both numbers and influence, especially as many availed themselves to the pioneering opportunities of commerce and education that were previously unknown to their fathers and mothers.
That was until the yellow-fever epidemics began striking in the 1870s. First in the smaller outlying cities and then roaring unchecked like a lion into Memphis, where many residents had fled after seeing the devastation wrought on their own communities by the disease. As the small-town economies were wiped out more and more people moved into Memphis – many carrying the disease that only compounded the problems for the city’s officials. The epidemic eventually forced Tennessee’s General Assembly to revoke Memphis’ state charter as a city and it wasn’t until years later that the city would regain its municipal status, but the city thrived in spite of itself because of the continued growth of its population. It was a unique situation, the post-Reconstruction city was growing and recovering economically, but doing so in a way that had never been seen before in the Mississippi River town. It soon led to smoldering hostilities among many of the city’s long-term white residents over the heavy numbers of freed blacks settling in Memphis and becoming successful.
Among those who moved to the city was an orphaned girl forced to take on the responsibilities of raising her remaining sisters on the small salary she received as a teacher – made more meager by the fact she was both black and female.
In addition to her talents as an educator, she worked here and there as a writer and eventually developed a journalistic style whose impact would be felt by the city of Memphis for years to come and reach not only beyond the borders of the state of Tennessee, but those of the nation as well. It would become a costly and dangerous profession that endangered her life and brought reprisals against those close to her. Her efforts as a journalist, however, would change forever the way the nation looked at black life and the role of women in American society.

Ida Wells was born in Holly Springs, MS on July 16, 1862. She was one of nine children born to the Wells, who were slaves. Following the War Between the States, her family gained their freedom and struggled in Mississippi to scratch a living out of the ground as farmers, but both parents did their best to see to their children’s education.
With the basic education from her parents, Ida Wells was sent by her parents to attend nearby Rust College, which had been established by the Freedman’s Bureau to educate former slaves and there gained a solid education.
At the age of 14, disaster struck her family when yellow-fever struck her family taking he lives of both her parents and three of her siblings. Ida Wells managed to continue her schooling in spite of the hardships and complete her studies where she took a job teaching in rural Holly Springs to support her other siblings. For six years, she taught and raised her siblings – earning a name for herself as a competent professional. When her two younger brothers were old enough to enter apprenticeships, she saw to their remaining needs and with her remaining siblings moved to nearby Memphis to live with her father’s sister Fannie Butler and look for a job that paid more than the $25 per month she was making in Mississippi.
Her aunt took care of her nieces while Ida studied for the teacher’s examination in Memphis and taught at a rural school in nearby Woodstock.
In 1884, Ida Wells rose to prominence in Memphis’ black community when she and three other black teachers purchased first class tickets on the Memphis-to-Woodstock line on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad Company. After she and the teachers had taken their seat in the ladies coach, the conductor passing through the car noticed them and asked them to move to the forward smoking car, which was designated for smokers on the railroad. Ida Wells refused and was forcibly removed from the train.
When she returned to Memphis, the outraged passenger promptly filed suit in court against the railroad company for $500 in damages and was awarded the sum by the Memphis Court system. The victory for Ida Wells and the black community was short-lived when attorneys representing the railroad appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court and overturned the decision stating that forward smoking car was designated as "first-class for blacks."
In her journal, Ida Wells wrote; "I have firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appeal it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged..."
Wells rebounded from the set back, passed her teacher’s exam in Memphis and took a job in the city’s black school district. For the next three years, she earned a reputation as a competent school teacher and spent her summers traveling to Nashville’s Fisk University, where she continued her studies and sharpened her academic skills. During those three years, her writings began leaving her journal and appearing in Memphis’ black-owned newspapers’ editorial pages. The minority community in the city had became a solid economic presence and were beginning to come into their own. In 1887, Wells was elected to fill a vacant position at the Evening Star – a journal of the Memphis Vance Street Church that covered current events in the community.
It turned out to be a position that Wells excelled in and her writing skills soon made her known throughout the city as an aggressive editorial voice for the city’s black community. Her popularity led Reverend R.N. Countee of the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church to offer her a position writing for the religious weekly Living Way. Her first feature story was her own experiences and the incidents surrounding the lawsuit against the Chesapeake- Ohio railroad. The story of her removal from the train and the ensuing court battles caught the attention of the publisher of the Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, who was needing someone with Well’s "devil may care attitude" to help increase subscriptions and advertising, The cash-strapped publication also offered her a financial opportunity to purchase a half-interest in the newspaper, which she did by investing her life savings and taking a part-ownership of the publication.
Wells never allowed her interests in journalism to interfere with her career as a teacher and she managed both with equal skill and dedication. In 1891, however, she wrote a stinging article on the lack of supplies and resources given to the city’s black public schools and criticized the school board’s priorities in regards to the treatment of separate, but grossly unequal school systems.
The Memphis Board of Education was both embarrassed and offended by the article and promptly dismissed Wells for her long-held teaching position, which allowed the Memphis journalist to devote all of her time to the newspaper.
Her skill as a writer documenting black life in Memphis and the injustices she observed against her people led to other black newspapers across the state to begin picking up her articles and they appeared in publications like Jackson’s Christian Index, Chattanooga’s Chattanooga Justice, and dozens of other papers in cities such as Detroit, Kansas City. Louisville, Little Rock, and Indianapolis. Under the pen name of Lola, she became known as an ardent crusader for equal rights for the nation’s black population.
She eventually shortened the name of her own paper to Free Speech and continued to write articles criticizing the condition of black life in Memphis and taking issue with the growing divide between the two communities.
A year later an incident would happen in Memphis that would change not only the course of her career as a Tennessee journalist, but also her life as well.
During her time as editor at the Free Speech , three black merchants named Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and William Stewart operated a grocery story across the street from a white merchant name W.H. Barnett. The men were personal friends of Wells and supported her newspaper through advertising and sales. It was a popular store among the city’s black community, who staunchly supported the business, which led to Barnett becoming jealous over a perceived loss of business, especially as the merchants competed for customers and did so in the ways they had learned from the other businessmen in the city. The rivalry between the two grocery stores led to numerous confrontations with the white store owner. Barnett tried everything to put the store out of business and finally used his political connections in the city to obtain Grand Jury indictments against the black store owners for "maintaining a nuisance." It apparently wasn’t enough to please the white merchant.
On the night of March 5, 1892, nine deputy sheriffs allegedly dressed themselves in civilian clothing and attacked the grocery store owners at the store. The deputies were mistaken for a mob and the black community quickly sprang into action to defend the owners and fired upon the deputies wounding three of them and creating a furor in the city. McDowell, Stewart, Moss and others were accused of rioting and arrested.
To make matters worse, Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Dubose issued an order disarming the Tennessee Rifles – a state-sanctioned black militia, whose job it was to guard the jail and protect the prisoners. With the guards unarmed there was little they could do three days later when nine white men kidnapped the three merchants and shot them to death.
Ida Wells was grief-stricken and shocked at the incident and turned her pen towards the city of Memphis for allowing such a lawless thing to occur in the city. In her newspaper, she wrote a scathing editorial stating: "The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or becomes his rival. There is nothing we can do now about the lynching, as we area outnumbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order was rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is, therefore, only one thing left that we can do; save our money and leave this town which will neither protect our lives and our property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but take us out and murder us in cold blood when accused by a white person."
Wells and other leading blacks began an all out campaign to encourage those blacks financially capable of it to leave the city and those who couldn’t to abstain from patronizing city streetcars, railroads and Well’s constant editorials used calls like "On to Oklahoma," which led to a black exodus that soon had a crippling effect on the city’s infrastructure and led to more than 2,000 blacks moving west and out of Memphis. Throughout her campaign, she continually called on the city to redress the murder of the grocers and bring their killers to justice – making famous her quote that "One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap."
City officials soon blamed her newspaper for paralyzing downtown businesses and their criticisms began drawing their own attention to her crusade. Ida Wells’ editorials started crossing over into white-owned newspapers throughout the nation and she found herself becoming a much sought after person on the national lecture circuit.
She accepted an invitation in 1892 to attend the African Methodist Episcopal Church Convention in Philadelphia, PA, but before departing on her trip, wrote another scathing editorial about white people executing blacks without the due process of law in Memphis and defending black me against what she believed to be unjust charges of raping white women. Following its publication and feeling pressure from cities across the South and America, a group of white leaders in the city convened a meeting and decided to send a message to Wells to cease and desist from printing such editorials again. A group of men took advantage of her and her partner’s absence to sack the newspaper’s offices destroying them and the presses before setting the structure on fire – posting a notice on the remains that the same fate awaited her if she returned.
With no home to return to, the Memphis resident moved to New York City and joined the staff of the New York Age, where she wrote a full-page article on the problem of lynching and saw more than 10,000 copies of the paper distributed across the country. In addition, she dug in and researched the problem in the nation and published the first statistical pamphlet on the lynching in America. Her influence was also creeping across the Atlantic and took her campaign to England, where her speeches were influential in the formation of the powerful British Anti-Lynching Society.
While Wells was more known for her campaign against lynching in America, she was not limited exclusively to the subject and her editorials focused on numerous other issues of concern to black America. In 1893, she joined activist Frederick Douglas and in focusing attention on the exclusion of blacks from the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. Wells soon found herself burning out as a writer and took a break to begin lecturing in the Northeast, which led to her being invited back to speak to groups in England, Scotland and Wales. When she returned to the states, she moved to Chicago, where she organized the city’s first civic club for black women and aided in the founding of the First National Conference of Colored Women. In addition, she finally fell in love and married a local attorney named Ferdinand L. Barnett, who also founded and edited the city’s first black-owned newspaper called the Chicago Conservator.
Ida Wells finally settled down with her husband to start a family – changing her pen name to Ida Wells-Barnett and continuing to address issues of concern to black America. She continued her writing and working in the newspaper business until the birth of her second son, when she finally decided to retire from the business of journalism and concentrated her time on her family and community service work.
In 1909, Ida Wells–Barnett joined Mary Church Terrell as the only two black women in America invited to attend and participate in the Conference on the Negro in New York City. Known as the "Committee of 40," the conference established the groundwork and led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Although an active participant in its founding, Ida Wells-Barnett returned to Chicago and focused her attention on the Chicago community where she lived.
Four years later, she became an adult probation officer for the city of Chicago and served in that position until 1916.
In addition, she became extremely active in the women’s suffrage movement and founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, which was the first black suffrage organization in America. Her work through the years and her incredible stamina founding numerous organizations for blacks as well as holding high-level posts in those already established led to her making a bid for the Illinois State Senate in 1930, where she finished third in the race. It would be her last heroic effort. Ida Wells-Barnett was struck by illness late in 1930 and battled the disease until it took her life on March 25, 1931.

The influence of Ida Wells-Barnett continued to impact the black community and the nation for many years following her death. In 1941, the Chicago Housing Authority opened the Ida B. Wells Housing Project named in her honor and – nine years later – the city named her one of 25 outstanding women in the city’s history.
While there were still many years following her death marked with racial problems, her impact and struggles as a journalist in Tennessee also led to numerous changes in not only cities across the state, but also in the way many state citizens thought about racial issues. Her efforts led to many blacks, who chose to remain in Memphis, to renew their efforts and fight for equality in the city. On the 125th anniversary of her birth, the Memphis Community Relations Commission erected and dedicated a historical marker at the former site of the Free Speech newspaper that Ida Wells-Barnett co-owned and made her first public stands against racial injustice. In addition, she is one of a only a handful of female journalists to be inducted into the Tennessee Newspaper Hall of Fame. The greatest tribute made to her, however, came in 1990 when the United States Post Office celebrated black history month by issuing a commemorative stamp honoring Ida B. Wells.
One of the little known facts about her crusades in life was her fight for women’s suffrage, which earned her many powerful friendships, including that of Susan B. Anthony. Although their shared passion of obtaining women the right to vote brought them together in a common cause, Ida Wells marriage to Ferdinand L. Barnett caused a serious rift in the friendship and the two never reconciled. The causes of Susan B. Anthony’s feelings regarding Wells’ marriage have been cause for much scholarly speculation over the years.
Although she had such impact on the nation and Europe with her life and career, it is hard to find corroborating evidence in regards to her birth and life prior to her life in Memphis. There are numerous books and publications available on her life, including an autobiography published in 1970 by the University of Chicago, which was edited by her daughter Alfreda Duster. Her home in Chicago is today a historical landmark and also details her life and times as one of the nation’s most recognized journalists.