"I am only a mouthpiece through which to tell the story of lynching and I have told it so often that I know it by heart. I do not have to embellish; it makes its own way." -- Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells was a pioneer advocate for civil rights. She was born in the south but spent her last 39 years, including all of her married life, based in Chicago. She was editor and publisher and her husband was founder of one of Chicago's first black newspapers called The Chicago Conservator. She was also a writer, lecturer, and activist. She was one of two women founders of the NAACP in 1909. She crusaded against lynching and other hate crimes of her time. Ida was one of the first black women ever to run for public office in 1930 when she ran as an independent candidate for the Illinois State Senate but she came in third. She was a founder of the Chicago Negro Fellowship League, the Ida B. Wells Club, the Alpha Suffrage Club, and was a director of the Cook County League of Women's Clubs.
She born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862 during the Civil War. She was the oldest of eight children. Less than six months after her birth, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day of 1863. But the proclamation that freed slaves could not be fully enforced until the Confederate states had been defeated by the Union Army in 1865.
The most important reform of the Reconstruction era for Ida and her generation was the legalization of formal education for blacks. It has been estimated that about 90 percent of blacks in America were illiterate in the 1870s and the need for black teachers was great. In 1878 at the age of 16 Ida was a student at Rust College. Rust College was founded in Holly Springs in 1866 by Freedman's Aid Society missionaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The yellow fever epidemic of 1878 killed both her parents and her younger brother. To keep her younger silbings together as a family, she began a teaching career and moved to Memphis in 1880 where her aunt lived.
In 1884 Ida refused to be relocated from the Ladies Car, a nonsmoking car, of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company when she was ordered by the conductor to move to the Jim Crow car. This happened 12 years before Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and seventy-one years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
According to Lee D. Baker of Duke University, "In 1889 Wells became a partner in the Free Speech and Headlight. The paper was also owned by Rev. R. Nightingale-- the pastor of Beale Street Baptist Church. He "counseled" his large congregation to subscribe to the paper and it flourished, allowing her to leave her position as an educator.
"In 1892 three of her friends were lynched. Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart. These three men were owners of People's Grocery Company, and their small grocery had taken away customers from competing white businesses. A group of angry white men thought they would "eliminate" the competition so they attacked People's grocery, but the owners fought back, shooting one of the attackers. The owners of People's Grocery were arrested, but a lynch-mob broke into the jail, dragged them away from town, and brutally murdered all three. Again, this atrocity galvanized her mettle. She wrote in The Free Speech,
"The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. 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 takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons."
"Many people took the advice Wells penned in her paper and left town; other members of the Black community organized a boycott of white owned business to try to stem the terror of lynchings. Her newspaper office was destroyed as a result of the muckraking and investigative journalism she pursued after the killing of her three friends. She could not return to Memphis, so she moved to Chicago. She however continued her blistering journalistic attacks on Southern injustices, being especially active in investigating and exposing the fraudulent "reasons" given to lynch Black men, which by now had become a common occurrence."
"In Chicago, she helped develop numerous African American women and reform organizations, but she remained diligent in her anti-lynching crusade, writing Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She also became a tireless worker for women's suffrage, and happened to march in the famous 1913 march for universal suffrage in Washington, D.C. Not able to tolerate injustice of any kind, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, along with Jane Addams, successfully blocked the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago."
"In 1895 Wells married the editor of one of Chicago's early Black newspapers. She wrote: "I was married in the city of Chicago to Attorney F. L. Barnett, and retired to what I thought was the privacy of a home." She did not stay retired long and continued writing and organizing. In 1906, she joined with William E.B. DuBois and others to further the Niagara Movement, and she was one of two African American women to sign "the call" to form the NAACP in 1909. Although Ida B. Wells was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she was also among the few Black leaders to explicitly oppose Booker T. Washington and his strategies. As a result, she was viewed as one the most radical of the so-called "radicals" who organized the NAACP and marginalized from positions within its leadership. As late as 1930, she became disgusted by the nominees of the major parties to the state legislature, so Wells-Barnett decided to run for the Illinois State legislature (the Senate), which made her one of the first Black women to run for public office in the United States."
Ida B. Wells-Barnett died in Chicago in 1931 at the age of 69.