16 July 2021
This Week’s History:
On this date in 1862 Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, MS, the oldest of eight children. After emancipation her parents were heavily involved in Reconstruction-era politics with the Republican Party until their death in a yellow fever epidemic in 1878. Spared due to visiting her grandmother’s farm outside of Holly Springs, she took over raising her six surviving siblings; to do so, she lied about her age and took a job teaching, and eventually moved the family to Memphis. While there she also broke into journalism, which eventually ended her teaching career after too many editorials exposing the inequities of the local school system.
First as a reporter, then as part-owner and editor of The Free Speech and Headlight, Wells fearlessly took on the prevailing powers of Memphis and made powerful enemies. After her reporting on a local lynching, the paper’s offices were burnt to the ground while she was in New York City on vacation, and she was threatened with death should she return. She chose to relocate to Chicago where she continued her heroic investigations into lynching. In addition to her writing, she also traveled throughout the North as well as Great Britain exposing the truth behind the practice. During her travels, she became the first African American woman to be hired by a mainstream white newspaper as reporter.
While her tireless crusade lynching is well-known, her life in Chicago was filled with other work that made a lasting impact on the city and the nation. As her children reached school age, she started the first Black kindergarten in Chicago and along with Jane Addams defeated a movement to segregate Chicago’s Schools. Tired of candidates that did not commit to civil rights, she became one, running for the Illinois State Senate in 1930, becoming one of the first African American women to run for public office. She was also one of the few women of that era to keep her maiden name after her 1895 marriage to Ferdinand L Barnett. In addition to her work for African American civil rights, Wells was devoted to the women’s suffrage movement as well, though she often was faced with Jane Crow within white suffrage organizations.
In 2020 Ida B Wells-Barnett was awarded a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans in the era of lynching.”
References and Further Reading:
Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, Ida B Wells-Barnett, Project Gutenberg
Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B Wells, 2nd ed., Ida B Wells and Alfreda M Duster, University of Chicago Press, 2020
The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, Ida B Wells, Penguin Classics, 2014
Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B Wells and the Campaign against Lynching, Paula J Giddings, Amistad, 2009
Ida B Wells, The Pulitzer Prizes
“A Historic Canoe was Discovered on a Wild SC River. How Did It Get There?” The State, Columbia, SC
“Confederate Reckoning Series Shows Impact of Decades of Discrimination on Southern States,” Memphis Commercial Appeal
“This Black Fort Worth Doctor Cared For a Community and was a Voice for Civil Rights,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Arrested and Beaten during Civil Rights Protests, She’s 93 and Finally Telling Her Story,” The Washington Post
“Memphis Celebrates Ida B Wells with Parade, Statue Unveiling,” WREG, Memphis CBS Affiliate
Until next week, take care,
Michele “Scout” Johnson
This series of posts to H-South, “Southern History and Civil Rights in the News,” aims to generate and track informed public discussions of southern history and civil rights. To recommend a reading, please email Dr. Michele Johnson at email@example.com