Born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Ida Wells was the child of politically active parents, and her life was an example of that influence. Her father James, after being freed from a lifetime of slavery, was involved in the Freedman’s Aid Society, and he helped found and served on the first board of trustees for Shaw University (now Rust University), a school for freed slaves.
Ida began her education at Shaw, but dropped out at age 16 due to tragic circumstances: her parents and one of her siblings died in an outbreak of yellow fever and her remaining siblings were in danger of being moved to foster homes. With the help of her grandmother, Ida kept her family together, finding work as a teacher at a nearby segregated school. Wells was paid $30 per month, while white teachers were paid $80 per month—a fact that enraged Wells and moved her further toward activism.
She later moved with her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with an aunt, eventually finding a little bit of time to study at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1884, on one of her train rides from Memphis to Nashville, Wells purchased a first-class ticket that was not honored by the train staff. When she refused to move to the African-American car, she was forcibly removed from the train. She successfully sued the railroad and won a $500 settlement, though the decision was later overturned.
This incident and her lifetime of discriminatory experiences inspired Wells to begin writing about race politics, particularly those in the South. She penned a number of articles under the pen name “Iola” and eventually became an owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregation newspaper that addressed racial injustice. Still teaching elementary school, she was approached by the Evening Star in Washington, DC, to write editorial pieces. In 1891, Ida was fired from her teaching position by the Memphis Board of Education for articles criticizing conditions in black segregated schools.
A violent and devastating incident in Memphis would help determine much of the course of Ida’s life and work. Thomas Moss, a friend of Wells, and two other men, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart, opened the People’s Grocery in a black neighborhood just outside of Memphis’ city limits. Because Moss’ store provided significant competition for a nearby white-owned grocery store, white mobs attacked the store on multiple occasions. During one of these attacks, three white men were shot and injured. Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were arrested and jailed, but they were never allowed to face trial. A large white lynch mob drug the men from their jail cells and murdered them.
After the brutal lynching, Wells wrote a number of articles on the prevalence of lynching of African Americans. She wrote in Free Speech and Headlight to encourage black citizens to leave Memphis, saying “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but take us out and murder us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” Eventually, over 6,000 black people did leave Memphis, while others put their lives at risk to organize boycotts of white-owned businesses. Wells also risked her life, spending several months traveling the South to investigate and document other lynchings. Wells found that black people were most often lynched for social rather than legal reasons. She found many instances of murder surrounding economic competition between black and white farmers and business owners. She failed to uncover evidence of the most popular given myth for lynchings or violence against African-Americans: sexual violence against white women.
Wells followed up her research with a book, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings In the United States. She was one of the first journalists to collect and report data surrounding instances of lynching. Many of her findings about lynching in America have since been supported by other formal research, including the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy of Lynching project. Her detailed report resulted in mob destruction of her newspaper offices while she was out of town. She was told that should she return to Memphis, she would be killed.
Ida Wells brought her anti-lynching movement to Washington, DC, holding a protest at the White House and calling for President William McKinley to take action. She established and helped organize a number of civil rights organizations, among them the National Association of Colored Women, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She later left the organization because she found them too moderate. Wells also worked with the National Equal Rights League, calling on President Woodrow Wilson to end discriminatory hiring practices, and fought for women’s suffrage. In 1930, at the age of 68, she ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Illinois state senate. A year later, she died of kidney disease.
Since Wells’ death, she has been recognized on many fronts. In 1941, the Public Works Administration built a public housing project in Chicago named in her honor (though the buildings have since been torn down). Organizations including the National Association of Black Journalists, Northwestern University, the University of Louisville, the Investigative Fund, and the New York County Lawyers Association have established awards in her name. In 1990, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp in her honor. Her work for truth in reporting remains a standard for reporting in American journalism.
Lead image credit: Google Arts & Culture.