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Profile: Ida B. Wells

 

By William Larsha, Sr.

The Mid-South Tribune

The Mid-South Tribune ONLINE

And the Black Information Highway

            In 1884, a 22-year-old Black female on her way to a new teaching job boarded a Memphis train heading to Woodstock, Tennessee. Having a first class ticket, she sat in a first class car. The conductor informed her that she must sit in the car reserved for the colored folk. When she refused to move, the conductor with the help of two white men threw her off the train.

            Thus a star was born: Ida Bell Wells (‘Barnett’ would later be her married name), a journalist, a civil righter whose civic activism would lead her to be known in the western world as an anti-lynching crusader. Her career as an African American journalist spanned through more than 40 years.

            Wells sued the railroad for the incident in 1884 and the court awarded her $500. But the victory was short lived. A State Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the lower court and Wells was assessed $200.

            Ida Bell Wells was born on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She was the eldest of eight children. Her father Jim Wells, the son of a white master and a slave woman, was a trained and apprenticed carpenter to a white contractor in Holly Springs. Jim Wells met Lizzie Warrenton who was the cook at the plantation where he worked.

            They were married and after the Civil War. Jim Wells moved his family from the plantation to be close to downtown Holly Springs. His skills as a carpenter enabled him to provide for his family a comfortable living. He believed in education and sent his children to school at early ages as possible. Ida B. attended small schools first and then Shaw University in Holly Springs, a school that had been established by the Freedman’s Aid Society in 1866 and later was renamed Rust College (which is still in existence and is one of the oldest African America colleges in the nation).

            Life in the Wells family greatly changed in 1878.  Yellow Fever struck Holly Springs, killing her mother Lizzie, father Jim, and a 10-month-old brother. Thus at 16, Ida B. took over the responsibility of caring for the remaining children. She quit school. Her training at Shaw (Rust) enabled her to pass the teachers’ exam and take on employment in the county school system at $25 a month.

            When the second trial of Wells vs. the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad was held in 1887, Ida B.  was already teaching school in Memphis. Her career in journalism also started early in her teaching years. By 1885 she was contributing to church newspapers. She had taken over the editorship of a weekly newspaper, Living Ways, under the pen name of “Iola”. And because of her common sense writing style, Wells’ popularity grew. And over the years she contributed articles to such local and national newspapers as the Memphis Watchman, the New York Age, and the Chicago Conservator.

            In 1889, Wells bought interest in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and later became its editor. At first, Wells and the Memphis Free Speech was critical of the poor conditions of schools for Black children. To Wells, inadequate buildings and improperly trained teachers gave Black children a mediocre education. Both Black and White citizens took issue with her, but what cost Wells her job was an article in which she pointed to an affair between a prominent White man and a Black female teacher.

            With no job, Wells turned to making a livelihood in journalism. She started promoting subscriptions for the Free Speech. Her popularity as a writer enabled her to secure subscriptions throughout the Mid-South—Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

            Wells’ crusade against the lynching of Black males by White mobs started in the spring of 1892 when three Black businessmen were brutally murdered. One story goes that a competing white businessman in a heavily Black populated area accused three Black managers of a thriving grocery store of conspiracy. When armed White men approached the store, the grocers were prepared to protect their business. Gun fire broke out and several White men were injured. And when several Whites identified themselves as law officers, the Black grocers surrendered and were taken to jail. In the middle of the night a mob of white men took the Blacks out of jail, shot and hung them.

            The version of events reported by White newspapers on the killing of the Black businessmen did not set well with Wells. So she printed her own analysis of the situation. To Wells, the stories of the Black businessmen reported in white newspapers were filled with lies to justify the lynching of Black males.

            Wells also wrote an editorial attacking the purity of White women and suggested that it was possible for White females to be attracted to Black men.

            The White community in Memphis was infuriated with Wells’ suggestion. Her life was threatened. Fortunately, Wells was attending the 1892 African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) General Conference in Philadelphia. For her safety, Wells did not return to Memphis. Instead, she went to New York City. There, she accepted one-third ownership of the famous New York Age newspaper, owned by the noted T. Thomas Fortune.

            As a journalist, one of Wells’ most electrifying feature stories came in October of 1892 Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws, In All Its Phases. This report gave her a big audience. She began lecturing in northern cities, stating her reasons for the lynching of Blacks. She journeyed to England in 1893 and again in 1884. She spent several months each time, exposing lynching and other crimes against Blacks in America.

            Wells continued her anti-lynching campaign, investigating many cases, and in 1895 published The Red Record. In that report, Wells found that many Blacks lynched for raping a white woman were not rapists—the sex was consensual. She reported that the majority of justifications for lynching Blacks ranged from charges of sassiness or being drunk to stealing and murder.

            In June of 1895, Wells married Ferdinand Lee Barnett, founder of the Conservator, Chicago’s first Black-owned newspaper. She settled in Chicago. And although Wells’ plan was to raise a family, she still did not divorce herself from the civil rights struggle. In 1922, after being in exile from the South for some 35 years, Wells returned to Arkansas to investigate the case of the Black farmers who were indicted for murder. She published the pamphlet about the event entitled “The Arkansas Race Riot”.

            During her day, Ida B. Wells was the best-known Black female journalist, especially known as a pioneer in the area of investigative reporting. She was celebrated as a dynamic speaker and a prolific debater. Truly, she was one of America’s leading equal rights crusaders—the paramount female in the anti-lynching movement and an outstanding figure in the women’s Suffrage Movement. Ida Bell Wells-Barnett died in 1931 at age 69.

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