Ida B Wells: American Hero

Ida B Wells: American Hero October 26, 2021




It was on this day, the 26th of October in 1892 that Ida B. Wells’s Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases was published.

It is extremely hard to overstate the importance of this book and of Ms Wells, herself. From when I first learned of her, I’ve tried to note this anniversary. Although searching my blog archives, I see I’ve been remiss for a couple of years. What follows is my briefest summary of her life and work. If you’re unfamiliar with her, you’re welcome…

Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on the 19th of July, 1862. After obtaining his freedom her father was able to further his education and even briefly attended Shaw University.

Later, Ida attended the same school. But telegraphing something of her future life, she was expelled following a confrontation with the college’s president. However, after a time, she readmitted. Sadly, when her parents died from Yellow Fever she left again, and in order to support her siblings went to work as a school teacher. While working she also continued stuyding, at Fisk and at LeMoyne.

Ms Wells was a whirlwind of activism. In addition to confronting issues of race, she also stood up to the men running things. The Wikipedia biographical article about her notes how at twenty-four she declared: “I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge.”

Refusing to give up a seat on a train and then being dragged off, Wells sued. In 1887 she won her case. But the decision was reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. It would be nearly a hundred years before this issue would be revisited when Rosa Parks did the same on a bus…

After three friends were lynched, she began to research the history of lynching in America, which culminated in that pamphlet, which was published a hundred and twenty-seven years ago, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases.” In response a mob destroying her printing press.

It didn’t stop her.

While working on a protest of how African Americans were treated at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, she decided to stay in the city, going to work for the Chicago Conservator, Chicago’s oldest African American paper.

When Ida married she kept her name. She and her husband Ferdinand Barnett had three children. Except for a period focused on her children Wells was an active speaker and writer, continuing her crusade against lynching, for civil rights and women’s rights for the whole of her life.

Wikipedia cites Tazewell Thompson summarizing this amazing woman.

“…A woman born in slavery, she would grow to become one of the great pioneer activists of the Civil Rights movement. A precursor of Rosa Parks, she was a suffragist, newspaper editor and publisher, investigative journalist, co-founder of the NAACP, political candidate, mother, wife, and the single most powerful leader in the anti-lynching campaign in America. A dynamic, controversial, temperamental, uncompromising race woman, she broke bread and crossed swords with some of the movers and shakers of her time: Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frances Willard, and President McKinley. By any fair assessment, she was a seminal figure in Post-Reconstruction America.”

Ida B Wells died in Chicago in 1931. She was sixty-eight.

An American hero.

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