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Wells-Barnett, Ida B.

By Caroline B. Altman

Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University


Biographical Highlights

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) was born into slavery in the South near the end of the Civil War. Growing up, she saw the disparity in the rights of African Americans and whites and became an insightful and frequent writer on the topic, particularly on the horrifying practice of lynching. Hine (1993) writes: "Wells-Barnett was a reformer and one of the first Black leaders to link the oppression and exploitation of African Americans and white economic opportunity" (1246). Even though she faced great tragedy, adversity, controversies and threats, she wrote and agitated for the betterment of her race with incredible energy and persistence. To this end, Ida helped to found a number of organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the country's oldest civil rights organization. Wells-Barnett continued her "crusade for justice" up until her death, at age sixty-nine.


Historic Roots

Ida Wells was born on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. It was the second year of the Civil War and she was born into a slave family. Her mother, Lizzie Warrenton, was a cook; and her father, James, was a carpenter. Ida's parents believed that education was very important and, after the War, they enrolled their children in Rust College, the local school set up by the Freedmen's Aid Society. Founded in 1866, the Society established schools and colleges for recently freed slaves in the South, and it was at Rust College that Ida learned to read and write.

Everything changed for Ida the summer she turned sixteen. Both of her parents and her infant brother died during a yellow fever epidemic, and Ida was left to care for her remaining five siblings. She began teaching at a rural school for $25 a month and, a year later, took a position in Memphis, Tennessee, in the city's segregated black schools.

On May 4, 1884, while riding a train to work, Ida was asked by the conductor to move to the segregated car, even though she had paid for a ticket in the ladies' coach car. She refused to leave, and bit the conductor's hand as he forcibly pushed her from the railway car. She sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, and was awarded $500 by a local court. Unfortunately, the Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the decision. This incident infuriated Ida and spurred her to investigate and report other incidents of racism.

Outraged by the inequality of black and white schools in Memphis and the unfairness of Jim Crow segregation, Ida became a community activist and began writing articles calling attention to the plight of African Americans. She wrote for a weekly black newspaper called The Living Way.

Ida wrote prolifically throughout her life, publishing articles on a range of topics that affected civil rights for African Americans. She continually stressed the importance of demanding that blacks and whites be treated as equal citizens under the law. She urged the black community to move out West, where she believed that blacks had a better chance of being treated equally. She encouraged African Americans to stop riding segregated streetcars, and urged boycotts of stores that discriminated against them.

In 1891, Wells was dismissed by the Memphis School Board for publishing diatribes against the poor conditions in black schools. Ida's attention then shifted from schools to the issue that would dominate her work for most of her life - lynching. Lynching was the brutal and lawless killing of black men and women, often falsely accused of crimes, and usually perpetrated by sizable violent mobs of whites.

It was during this Reconstruction Era, after the Civil War, that black men made immediate civil gains such as voting, holding public office, and owning land. Yet, groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) developed at the turn of the century as a response. They made it difficult for Southern blacks to vote or live in peace, attempting to maintain white supremacy through coercion and violence, including lynching.

In 1889, Wells became the co-owner and (eventually) the editor of Free Speech, a small black Memphis newspaper. In 1892, her Free Speech press offices were destroyed by an angry white mob after she published an especially scathing anti-lynching article. She was fortunate to be in New York at the time, and was forced to remain there due to many threats on her life in Memphis. She wrote and lectured frequently as a reporter for the New York Age, and even took her anti-lynching crusade on a speaking tour of the United Kingdom. She led the Anti-Lynching League and campaigned tirelessly for national anti-lynching laws.

Wells was drawn to Chicago in 1893 to protest the racism of the exclusion of African Americans from the World's Fair. With the help of Frederick Douglass, she distributed 20,000 pamphlets entitled The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the Columbian Exposition. On June 27, 1895, she married Ferdinand Lee Barnett, lawyer and editor of the Chicago Conservator, and continued to write while raising four children with him.

Ida believed firmly in the power of the vote to effect change for African-American men and women. She saw enfranchisement as the key to reform and equality, and she integrated the Women's Suffrage movement by marching in the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., with the all-white Illinois delegation.

She continued to write in her later years, and remained one of the most widely syndicated black columnists in America. She published articles on race issues and injustices that were printed in African-American newspapers nationwide. Toward the end of her life, Ida worked to address the social and political concerns of African Americans in Chicago. She made an unsuccessful run as an independent candidate for the Illinois State Senate in 1930, and died the next year of the kidney disease uremia.

Wells-Barnett's influence was profound. When the "federal government built the first low-cost housing project in Chicago's black belt" in 1940, it was named in her honor (Sterling 1979, 117). Her autobiography was published posthumously by her daughter, Alfreda Duster (1972).


Importance

Ida B. Wells-Barnett contributed significantly to raising public awareness about the horrors of lynching, a movement that eventually led to the classification of lynching as a federal crime. Although lynching is extremely rare today, during her lifetime thousands of African Americans were lynched in the South each year. Through her pamphlets, articles, and speaking engagements, she made lynching a widely known public issue and worked to improve understanding about its true nature and motivations.

Usually, lynching was thought to happen to black men accused of raping white women. However, when three of Ida's friends, who were pillars in the black community, were lynched, it forced her to reexamine her own views about why lynching occurred. After some investigation, she concluded that lynching was a way of eliminating financially successful black Americans, who were viewed by whites as economically threatening.

In 1892, she published "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases," a feature story which gained her a national audience in which she argued that lynching was caused by economic competition between blacks and whites.

In Chicago, she helped to found a number of black female and reform organizations, such as the Ida B. Wells Club, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, and the Chicago Negro Fellowship League. She also served as director of Chicago's Cook County League of Women's Clubs. These clubs were a means for black people to join together for support and to organize to effect change. At the national level, Wells-Barnett was a central figure in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women, a visible organization that worked for adequate child care, job training, and wage equity, as well as against lynching and transportation segregation.

Wells-Barnett was a member of the Committee of Forty, founded in 1909, which led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. She was one of only two African American women to sign the call for the formation of the NAACP. She sat on the NAACP's executive committee before shifting her attention to actively promoting women's suffrage.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Ida B. Wells-Barnett's "passion for justice" made her a tireless crusader for the rights of African Americans and women. She was a social reformer, a suffragist, a civil rights activist, and a philanthropist. Her writings, regardless of the risk to her safety and life, raised public awareness and involvement to address a number of social ills resulting in the oppression or murder of African Americans. Her service of time through the creation of myriad clubs and organizations improved the lives of her people. Her work in Chicago, in her final years, focused on providing for the needs of the city's African-American population. Modeled after Jane Addams' Settlement House efforts, Wells created urban houses for black men, where they could live safely and have access to recreational amusements while they searched for employment.


Key Related Ideas

AIda B. Wells-Barnett is sometimes referred to as the "Mother of the Civil Rights movement." She refused to be moved from the whites-only railway car eighty years before the famous Rosa Parks held her seat on an Alabama bus. She encouraged the black community to take steps to gain political rights, using the same means that would successfully be used much later during the Civil Rights movement (such as economic and transportation boycotts).

In similar fashion to Margaret Sanger (of the Birth Control movement) and Susan B. Anthony (of the Women's Suffrage movement), Wells-Barnett was a woman who dedicated her entire life to upholding her firm beliefs about social reform. She began by writing about the disparity in education and school conditions for black children and spent much of her life working to abolish lynching through public awareness. Ida, through her example, writings, speaking, and service in various organizations, elevated the voice of women's equality and suffrage. She was a pioneering black female journalist, and led a very public life in a time when most women, black or white, did not actively participate in the male political realm.


Important People Related to the Topic

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was connected to many prominent leaders and reformers, male and female, during her lifetime. Among them:

Jane Addams (1860-1935) was a social reformer, social worker and the founder of Chicago's Hull House (the most famous of the settlement houses). Addams and Wells-Barnett successfully worked together to block the segregation of Chicago's public schools.

W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) was a famous black scholar, researcher, writer, and civil rights activist who voiced opposition to the accomodationist views of his contemporary, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Washington urged African Americans to focus on self-improvement through education and economic opportunity instead of pressing whites for political rights. Wells-Barnett joined DuBois in his belief that African Americans should militantly demand civil rights, and the two worked together on several occasions, most substantially as co-founders of the NAACP.

T. Thomas Fortune (1856-1928) was the leading black journalist of the post-Civil War era. He founded the New York Age in 1883, the prominent black opinion journal for which Ida B. Wells wrote. He sought to champion the cause of his race by denouncing segregated schools in the New York educational system.

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was a suffragist who spoke out on the treatment of African Americans, particularly female blacks. With Wells-Barnett, Terrell helped to found the NAACP. She also served as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), of which Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a founding member, is still a thriving organization with thousands of members nationwide. The association continues to advocate and litigate for civil rights for African Americans.

Two of the primary issues on which Wells-Barnett worked on social reform, anti-lynching and women's suffrage, are now defunct issues. Lynching is a federal crime and women received the vote in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. For this reason, related groups that arose at the time, such as the Anti-lynching League, the Freedmen's Aid Society, and the National Association of Colored Women are no longer in existence. Yet, the League of Women Voters was created as an outgrowth of the suffragist movement, and is an organization that still educates men and women about their responsibilities as voters.

Most of the clubs that Wells helped found disbanded many years ago. Among the many defunct organizations and clubs Wells-Barnett was involved in were: The Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago - the first black women's suffrage club in Illinois. The Chicago Negro Fellowship League which provided housing, reading rooms, and employment services for black men. The Ida B. Wells Club in Chicago, Illinois, which established the first black orchestra and kindergarten for black students.


Related Web Sites

The National Women's Hall of Fame Web site provides biographical sketches of famous American Women. See the Ida B. Wells-Barnett biography at http://www.greatwomen.org/women.php?action=viewone&id=167.

The Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000 Web site is "organized around a collection of almost 900 primary documents" and "offers new ways for students, teachers and scholars to study American History." This page includes

Wells-Barnett's famous New York Age feature story, "Southern Horrors," as well as the text of the pamphlet she distributed at the Chicago's World Fair (see http://womhist.binghamton.edu/teacher/ibw.htm).


Bibliography and Internet Sources

City University of New York. Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice. [updated 20 February 2001; cited 23 November 2002]. Available from http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/wells.html.

Duster, Alfreda M., ed. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Hine, Darlene Clark, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, and Elsa B. Brown, eds. Black Women in America. Vol. 2. Brooklyn, New York: Carlson Publishing, 1993, 1242-46. (This edition out-of-print; current edition ISBN: 0253327741.)

Martin, Waldo E. and Patricia Sullivan, eds. Civil Rights in the United States. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000, 789-90. ISBN 0028647645.

Salzman, Jack, ed. African-American Culture and History. Vol. 4. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001, 881-83. ISBN 0028655354.

Sterling, Dorothy. Black Foremothers: Three Lives. New York: McGraw-Hill Feminist Press, 1979, 60-117. ISBN: 0935312897.