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Ida B. Wells-Barnett

By

Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Public Domain

Overview

When civil rights crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett died in 1931, the Chicago Defender published an obituary characterizing her as "elegant, striking, and always well groomed . . . regal though somewhat intolerant and impulsive." Throughout Wells-Barnett's career as a journalist, social-political organizer and suffragist, she worked with great fervor to end discrimination based on gender and race.

Early Life

Wells-Barnett was born a slave on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Miss. Her father, James Wells, was a skilled carpenter and her mother, Lizzie Warrenton was a cook.

In 1878, Wells, Warrenton and their youngest son, Stanley died in a yellow fever epidemic. At 16 years of age, Wells-Barnett was left to care for five younger siblings. As a result, she stops attending Shaw University, gets a certification as a teacher.

Soon after, Wells-Barnett and two of her younger sisters move to Memphis where she finds work as an educator.

A Court Battle

In 1884, Wells-Barnett sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad after being forcibly removed from the train because she refused to move to a segregated car. She sues on the grounds that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 banned discrimination based on race, creed, or color in theaters, hotels, transportation and public facilities. Although Wells-Barnett won the case on the local circuit courts and was awarded $500, the railroad company appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Tennessee. In 1887, the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the lower court's ruling.

Muckraker

Although Wells-Barnett lost the appeal against the railroad company, her experiences as an African-American woman who fought against racial injustice prompted her career in journalism. Soon, she was writing articles that appeared in The Living Way, a weekly newspaper under the pen name, Iola. By 1889, Wells-Barnett resigned from her teaching position and became part owner of the African-American newspaper Free Speech and Headlight. Wells-Barnett's partner was Reverend R. Nightingale, the pastor of Beale Street Baptist Church. Urging the congregation and other community members to subscribe to the publication, Wells-Barnett and Nightingale became successful business owners.

In 1892, three of Wells-Barnett's friends were lynched by a group of angry white men. Her friends--Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart--were owners of the People's Grocery Company, a successful African-American business. Competing white business owners, vowing to "eliminate" the competition and attacked the store. While protecting their business, one of the men shot one of the white attackers. Moss, McDowell and Stewart were arrested. A mob of white men broke into the jail, took them into a rural part of Tennessee and lynched the three men.

In response to the murders, Wells-Barnett wrote an editorial in The Free Speech arguing that Memphis was not a safe place for African-Americans and exposing the justification of murdering African-American men. Following the murders Wells-Barnett's news offices were destroyed and her life was threatened. Warned not to return to Memphis, Wells-Barnett travels to New York City where she writes for the New York Age. Investigating the act of lynching, Wells-Barnett publishes her findings in an article entitled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Life in Chicago

After completing her work for New York Age, Wells-Barnett settled in Chicago. Working with Frederick Douglass and several other African-American leaders, Wells-Barnett helped organize a boycott of the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago. The group believed that the exposition failed to work with African-American communities to display exhibits of African-American life. Collaborating with Douglass and her future husband, Ferdinand L. Barnett, Wells-Barnett published the pamphlet Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Colombian Exposition. More than 20,000 people received a copy of the pamphlet.

That same year, Wells-Barnett began writing for the Chicago Conservator.

In 1895, Wells-Barnett married her husband, Ferdinand and published the anti-lynching pamphlet, A Red Record. Initially Wells-Barnett believed that she would retire from life as a civil rights crusader. However, her retirement was short-lived.

The following year, Wells-Barnett worked with a number of women to organize the first African-American national organization-- the National Association of Colored Women . Through the NACW, Wells-Barnett continued to fight against lynching and other forms of racial injustice.

In 1900, Wells-Barnett publishes Mob Rule in New Orleans. The text tells the story of Robert Charles, an African-American man who fought police brutality in May of 1900.

Collaborating with W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter, Wells-Barnett helped increase membership of the Niagara Movement. Three years later, she participated in the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Wells-Barnett was not only working on the national level to galvanize African-Americans. On the local level, Wells-Barnett organized the Negro Fellowship League to assist African-Americans moving from southern towns to Chicago as part of the Great Migration.

In 1913, Wells-Barnett established the first suffrage club for African-American women in Illinois. Known as the Alpha Suffrage Club, the organization wanted to march in the National American Women's Suffrage Association's parade in Washington. Yet white suffragettes wanted African-American women to march in the back of the parade. Wells-Barnett responded by protesting the event and her efforts led to an integrated association.

Death

Wells-Barnett died on March 25, 1931. She was 69. In 1970, her daughter, Alfreda Duster published her autobiography Crusade for Justice.

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