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 citys
officials. The epidemic eventually forced Tennessees General
Assembly to revoke Memphis state charter as a city and
it wasnt 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 citys 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 childrens 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 Freedmans 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 fathers 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 teachers
examination in Memphis and taught at a rural school in nearby
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
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
Wells rebounded from the set back, passed her teachers
exam in Memphis and took a job in the citys black school
district. For the next three years, she earned a reputation
as a competent school teacher and spent her summers traveling
to Nashvilles 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 citys 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 Wells "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 citys
black public schools and criticized the school boards
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 Jacksons Christian
Index, Chattanoogas 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
nations 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 citys 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 wasnt 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 couldnt to abstain from patronizing
city streetcars, railroads and Wells constant editorials
used calls like "On to Oklahoma," which led to a black
exodus that soon had a crippling effect on the citys 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
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 partners absence to sack the newspapers
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
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 Worlds 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
citys 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
citys 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 WellsBarnett 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 womens
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
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
One of the little known facts about her crusades in life was
her fight for womens 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. Anthonys 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 nations most