Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931) was an American investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Over the course of a lifetime dedicated to combating prejudice and violence, and the fight for African-American equality, especially that of women, Wells arguably became the most famous Black woman in America.
Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War. At the age of 16, she lost both her parents and her infant brother in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic. She went to work and kept the rest of the family together with the help of her grandmother. Later, moving with some of her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, she found better pay as a teacher. Soon, Wells co-owned and wrote for the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper. Her reporting covered incidents of racial segregation and inequality.
In the 1890s, Wells documented lynching in the United States in articles and through her pamphlet called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases, investigating frequent claims of whites that lynchings were reserved for Black criminals only. Wells exposed lynching as a barbaric practice of whites in the South used to intimidate and oppress African Americans who created economic and political competition—and a subsequent threat of loss of power—for whites. A white mob destroyed her newspaper office and presses as her investigative reporting was carried nationally in Black-owned newspapers. Subjected to continued threats, Wells left Memphis for Chicago. She married Ferdinand L. Barnett in 1895 and had a family while continuing her work writing, speaking, and organizing for civil rights and the women’s movement for the rest of her life.
While her work contains extensive documentation of lynchings — she was one of the first to do so — her work is notable for its real-time reporting on the prevalent incendiary propaganda about Black rape that was used to justify the practice.
Wells was outspoken regarding her beliefs as a Black female activist and faced regular public disapproval, sometimes including from other leaders within the civil rights movement and the women’s suffrage movement. She was active in women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement, establishing several notable women’s organizations. A skilled and persuasive speaker, Wells traveled nationally and internationally on lecture tours.
In 2020, Wells was posthumously honored with a Pulitzer Prize special citation “[f]or her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
The Free Speech received national attention in 1892 for its coverage of the so-called Curve Riot. Not a riot at all, the Curve Riot was an attack on the People’s Grocery Store by a group of undercover police serving a warrant on the black-owned business. Will Barret, the store’s white competitor, had convinced a local court that the People’s Grocery had became a nuisance. The court ordered the owners arrested. Fearing an attack, supporters of the People’s Grocery armed themselves to defend the store. In the ensuing melee three deputies were wounded. Crying “race riot,” other armed whites joined the police and eventually captured and arrested over thirty African Americans, including three of the store’s owners: Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart. A mob seized the three from the jail and lynched them. Wells wrote passionately of the atrocity and advised her readers to abandon Memphis and move to the western territories. Many followed her advice. After Edward Ward Carmack, editor of the Memphis Commercial, demanded retaliation against “the black wench” for her denunciation of the lynchings, the offices of the Free Speech were demolished by an angry mob. Fortunately, Wells was out of town when the attack occurred, and she did not return to the South for another thirty years.
After conducting greater research, Wells published The Red Record, in 1895, a 100-page pamphlet with more detail, describing lynching in the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It also covered Black people’s struggles in the South since the Civil War. The Red Record explored the alarmingly high rates of lynching in the United States (which was at a peak from 1880 to 1930). Wells-Barnett said that during Reconstruction, most Americans outside the South did not realize the growing rate of violence against Black people in the South. She believed that during slavery, White people had not committed as many attacks because of the economic labour value of slaves. Wells noted that, since slavery time, “ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, [through lynching] without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution”.
During slavery time, she noted that Whites worked to “repress and stamp out alleged ‘race riots'” or suspected slave rebellions, usually killing Black people in far higher proportions than any White casualties. Once the Civil War ended, White people feared Black people, who were in the majority in many areas. White people acted to control them and suppress them by violence.
During the Reconstruction Era White people lynched Black people as part of mob efforts to suppress Black political activity and re-establish White supremacy after the war. They feared “Negro Domination” through voting and taking office. Wells-Barnett urged Black people in high-risk areas to move away to protect their families.
Wells-Barnett gave 14 pages of statistics related to lynching cases committed from 1892 to 1895; she also included pages of graphic accounts detailing specific lynchings. She noted that her data was taken from articles by White correspondents, White press bureaus, and White newspapers. The Red Record had far-reaching influence in the debate about lynching.
Southern Horrors and The Red Record’s documentation of lynchings captured the attention of Northerners who knew little about lynching or accepted the common explanation that Black men deserved this fate.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 4084 African Americans were lynched in the South, alone, between 1877 and 1950, of which, 25 percent were accused of sexual assault and nearly 30 percent, murder. Generally southern states and White juries refused to indict any perpetrators for lynching, although they were frequently known and sometimes shown in the photographs being made more frequently of such events.
Despite Wells-Barnett’s attempt to garner support among White Americans against lynching, she believed that her campaign could not overturn the economic interests Whites had in using lynching as an instrument to maintain Southern order and discourage Black economic ventures. Ultimately, Wells-Barnett concluded that appealing to reason and compassion would not succeed in gaining criminalization of lynching by Southern Whites.
Wells-Barnett concluded that perhaps armed resistance was the only defense against lynching. Meanwhile, she extended her efforts to gain support of such powerful White nations as Britain to shame and sanction the racist practices of America.
Wells began writing her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928), but never finished the book; it would be posthumously published, edited by her daughter Alfreda Barnett Duster, in 1970, as Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.
Wells died of uremia (kidney failure) in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68. She was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side.
Links For Additional Reading:
Library of Congress: https://guides.loc.gov/chronicling-america-ida-wells
National Parks: https://www.nps.gov/people/idabwells.htm
Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ida-B-Wells-Barnett