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Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett July 16, 1862 - March 25, 1931

 

Ida B. Wells was born a slave, but declared free by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Wells was born into her activist role. Her father James, assisted the Freedman’s Aid Society and helped start Shaw University (currently Rust College) in the city of Wells’ birth, Holly Springs, Mississippi. James served on Shaw’s first board of trustees. Wells was permitted to attend Shaw as a young teenager, which she did until age 16 when her parents died from Yellow Fever.

Wells convinced a local school that she was 18-years-old and earned a teaching job there. Soon after moving her sister to Memphis, Tennessee, Wells was confronted with racially motivated discrimination on a train. In May of 1884 Wells purchased a first-class train ticket to Nashville. Despite her first-class ticket, the train crew ordered Wells to sit in the “black section.” Wells refused, and when the conductor attempted to remove her, she wrapped her teeth into the back of his hand.

Wells proudly co-owned and edited a black newspaper named, The Free Speech and Headlight. Producing literature that could upset the racist status quo was dangerous. So Wells wrote her editorials under the pseudonym, “Iola.” This publication granted her the platform to condemn violence against blacks, disfranchisement, poor schools, and the failure of black people to fight for their rights. These positions however virtuous, led to her termination as a teacher. As a result, Wells devoted her energy to journalism full-time. 

One story in particular motivated her to disseminate the anti-lynching message to the masses, she knew how critical exposure was to this incident… A revered black store owner, and personal friend of Wells, Tom Moss, was lynched for defending his store against a hostile, violent mob of white men intending to do it harm. The Moss killing outraged Wells, prompting her to publish scathing articles about the evils of lynching and encouraging black residents of Memphis to leave town. Moss’s newspaper was burned down for this, while she was out of town. The perpetrators left behind a death threat instructing Wells not to return to Memphis. Wells stayed in the north, and produced extensive work for the New York Age (black owned newspaper) on Lynching In America.

In response to the denial of black exhibitors at the World’s Columbian Exhibition, Wells penned a pamphlet called, “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not Represented in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” That pamphlet was funded and supported by freed slave, and famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. After publishing “A Red Record: a personal examination of lynching in America,” Wells brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House in 1898. This Washington, D.C. protest called for President McKinley to make reforms.

Despite Wells’ ideological differences with W.E.B. Du Bois, she helped found the NAACP in 1909. And following her lead, the NAACP assumed responsibility for demanding an end to lynching in the U.S.

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett fought for the eradication of lynching up until her death in 1931.

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