She was a groundbreaking journalist, a strong abolitionist and feminist who would stop at nothing to stop lynching in the United States.
Ida did not do things quietly and more often than not she had white mobs on her heels as she travelled through the south researching lynching cases and destroying the myth that lynching was a rightful punishment for black men accused of raping white women.
Born into slavery in the height of the Civil War, Ida b Wells was only 3 years old when the slave trade was formally abolished in 1865.
Black men were getting the right to vote, giving them representation in government for the first time.
Her father was an illegitimate son and slave of a wealthy white man. He became active in politics after Emancipation and put a lot of importance on education. He often had Ida read the newspaper to him and his friends.
When Ida was just 16 she lost both her parents and a brother to yellow fever and turned to teaching to support her five other siblings, where she lied about her age—telling a country school administrator that she was 18—in order to land a job.
“There’s nobody but me to look after them now,” – Ida B Wells
Past Grey Learns
When she was 19, Ida moved to Memphis with two of her youngest siblings. She continued her own studies at Fisk University in Nashville at nights and on weekends. And it was on a train trip to Nashville that Ida’s life was changed.
Around this time the Supreme Court chose to go back on the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and declared a lot of the advancements of the Reconstruction era of Ida’s childhood null and void. Anti-black sentiment grew and Jim Crow rose with it.
“It felt like a dramatic whiplash. She cuts her teeth politically in this time of justice, justice, justice, and then injustice.” – Troy Duster, Wells’s grandson
At just 21, Ida stood in the face of racism and bit back, literally.
When she boarded a train and sat in her seat in a first class coach, the conductor tried to kick Ida out of it in favour of a white woman and forced her into the smoking carriage, where African Americans were relegated to ride out their journey. Ida stood her ground. She bit the conductor and it took another two men to forcibly remove her. Because sometimes you gotta fight violence with violence.
“He tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand.” – Ida B Wells
She sued the company and was awarded $500. Unfortunately, this created an uproar and the Tennessee State Supreme Court overturned the ruling and instead made Ida pay $200 of court costs.
But Ida isn’t someone to take things lying down. Writing by the pen name Lola, Princess of the Press, she wrote about her experience and it landed her a career in journalism. She eventually would become the most well known black woman in her time based off her hard-hitting journalism and refusal to back down.
Ida developed a lot of reporting tactics that are still used in modern journalism. Even her tactics for battling racism were used too often uncredited in the civil rights movement nearly one hundred years later.
She also called for a boycott of the train company that discriminated against her, long before male civil rights activists used economic boycotts as part of their own activism.
“There has been no word equal to it in convincing power, I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison.” – Frederick Douglass
At 27, Ida bought one third interest in The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. She became the editor and the first woman in US history to own and edit a black newspaper.
Which was lucky as she eventually either left her job as a teacher or was fired depending on what source you read after criticising conditions of black schools in Memphis.
Ida turned her attention to lynching when her friend, a grocery store owner, Tommie Moss, Henry Stewart and Calvin McDowell were all victims of a white mob in Memphis.
Moss’s store was very successful and the whites of Memphis weren’t having it. They made threats, and eventually these threats became too real.
A mob descended on the three black men who were incarcerated in a Memphis jail at the time. They were lead by a white grocery store owner; Tommie Moss was his professional rival.
In cold blood, the mob shot these men over nothing more than a game of marbles, a loss of business and a hell of a lot of racism.
McDowell had fist-sized holes in him. Moss begged for his life for the sake of his wife who was pregnant at the time. Ida was his first child’s godmother.
“It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed, somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.” – Ida B Wells in Southern Horrors, 1892.
Some people might describe the prejudice and racism that occurred during Ida’s lifetime as a disease I’m looking at you, New York Times but I see that as nothing but blame shifting and it only helps to uphold a racist system.
People choose to be cruel. People choose to be racist.
The people who murdered Tommie Moss, Henry Stewart and Calvin McDowell consciously made those choices.
Cancer is a disease, diabetes is a disease.
Racism, lynching, murder; those are choices.
To say they are diseases is to say that they are villianless crimes. It takes the accountability from those who inflict violence and places it on a faceless monster that we could never hold accountable or punish.
It’s one of the reasons racism is still prevalent today. It’s why white supremacists, murderers, rapists are given free passes over and over again.
But we can hold people accountable and we can punish them for their monstrous actions. It’s a cruel act of injustice to not do so.
Ida knew this and she wasn’t going to let it slide unnoticed. Ida was about to get fucking loud and we should all love her for it. I sure as hell do!
Ida traveled all over the South for months detailing the truths about lynching. She conducted interviews, dug up police records and reported nothing but the facts.
It was important to Ida to publish the names of the victims’ stories she told so that they wouldn’t be forgotten, much like how black women in the Black Lives Matter movement of today push for the use of the names of men lost to police violence.
“Save the night wind, no memorial service to bemoan their sad and horrible fate.” – Ida B Wells
Black History Month
☁️│Check the Vibes│28 Black History Month Books│
☁️│Stephanie│Adventures of a Bibliophile│BLACK HISTORY BOOKS TO READ FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH│
☁️│Kristi│Confessions of a YA Reader│Book Recommendations for Black History Month│
☁️│Rae│Bookmark Chronicles│Things You DON’T Say During Black History Month (or ever)│
☁️│Qui│The Black Lit Queen│Black Stereotypes and Tropes in Books│
☁️│Buzzfeed│27 Underrated Black Musicians You Need To Listen To Now│9 Moments Of Black Excellence You Might Have Missed This Week│Here Are 9 Of The Best Black Excellence Moments From This Week│11 Moments Of Black Excellence You Might Have Missed This Week│North West Is On Her First Solo Magazine Cover And 12 Other Moments Of Black Excellence From This Week│31 YA Books By Black Authors That You Can’t Miss This Year│
☁️│Darian Symoné Harvin│Black girls in front of the Mona Lisa thread│
Not only did Ida write about Lynching, she also brought the truth of the rape myth to light.
No, not the rape myths we still see today. The myth Ida wanted to destroy was one used to incite fear and excuse any violence inflicted on black men by white men under guise of ‘protecting white women’.
They’d claim they were just protecting white women from the dangers of aggressive black men, when really they just wanted an excuse to persecute black men for nothing other than the colour of their skin.
It’s why the microaggression of white women calling the cops on black people, specifically black men, just for existing, is not only very obviously racist, but also really fucking dangerous.
It puts the lives of black people at risk, because lynching might not be technically legal anymore, but it only takes a quick Google search to see the names of black lives that have been lost to the ‘fears’ of white people.
Ida proved that often as in two-thirds of cases white people didn’t even bother with a fake rape accusation, and when they did, it was usually in the face of a consensual interracial relationship.
White men wanted to stake claim on white women’s sexuality, especially when it came to interracial relationships between white women and black men that were entirely consensual.
Ida also spent her career on recording the sexual assault of black women, where, no surprise here, lynching wasn’t used as a punishment, proving that white men just wanted to claim all women’s bodies for themselves, because let’s not pretend it was only black men raping black women here.
Ida wrote several editorials on lynching for her newspaper and people couldn’t get enough of her honest and bold journalism. Her writing was reprinted, not just countless times in black weeklies being spread across the nation, but also internationally as well.
She wanted her words to be accessible to those like her, she wanted black people to have access to their own history while it was being made.
“If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service, other considerations are minor.” – Ida B Wells
Of course the whites got mad about being faced with their own inexcusable actions Oh boy, does that feel relevant, even today and so they formed a mob and destroyed the offices of Free Speech and left a threatening note.
Ida hightailed the fuck out of Memphis, moving to New York, and eventually the UK where she lectured to gain support for her cause. She also encouraged the British to boycott American Cotton.
Her home country turned on her for airing it’s dirty laundry.
Ida didn’t just fight for African American rights, she also took up the suffragette cause and much like her stance on mob violence, she did not do so quietly. She criticised white suffragettes for their racism because Ida did not let white people get away with their bullshit ever.
She found it hard to maintain personal relationships because she wouldn’t stop holding people accountable for their actions no matter, and perhaps because of, how much she cared for them.
Despite this, she successfully gained a number of supporters over the years, including Frederick Douglass and Ferdinand Barnett, who would later become her husband.
“She didn’t suffer fools and she saw fools everywhere.” – Troy Duster, Wells’s grandson
Her husband was someone she could depend on to fight injustice by her side. He was a lawyer and civil rights activist in Chicago. They married in 1895 and in an act that was revolutionary for their time, Ida’s career came before Ferdinand’s activism and their relationship was hella modern past that as well. Ferdinand cooked dinner most of the time and was the main caregiver of their four children while Ida travelled for work.
Unfortunately Ida’s bold journalism fell a little out of favour, with white and black establishments choosing to support those with more conservative techniques.
She founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1896 to address issues of misogyny in the civil rights movement and racism in the women’s suffrage movement.
I’m sure she’d appreciate that Moya Bailey coined the term Misogynoir:
Misogynoir is misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles in bias. The term was coined by queer black feminist Moya Bailey, who created the term to address misogyny directed toward black women in American visual and popular culture. – Wikipedia
In 1909, Ida attended a conference for an organization that later became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and for a long time people did not recognise her as a founding member.
Despite being pushed out of society’s eyesight, she continued her work on the forefront of progress and change, unsuccessfully running for state senate in 1930.
Ida kept going right until her death, she worked on causes like mass incarceration and even worked as a probation officer until her death. Ida spent her life running into the depths of racism with white mobs on her heels and in the end kidney disease is what took her down on March 25, 1931 when she was just 68.
“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.” – Ida B Wells
☁️ │Chicago Tribune│9 things you must know about Ida B. Wells-Barnett│By Lolly Bowean│
☁️ │National Women’s History Museum│Ida B. Wells-Barnett│By Arlisha R. Norwood│
☁️ │Biography│Ida B. Wells Biography│
☁️ │Modern Women: 52 Pioneers│Kira Cochrane│
But mostly I used this one → ⛈│To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells│By Linda O. McMurry│
Try and tell me Ida isn’t a fucking badass. try. me.
Did you know about Ida B Wells?
Have you participated in Black History Month?
Is there a historical figure you look up to?
Who should I cover next?