African American Suffragists (Week 3)

February 24, 2022


Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Suffragist Ida B. Wells Barnett is in the spotlight for this week. The Black Women’s Suffrage(1) indicates pioneering investigative journalist, civil rights activist, suffragist and feminist Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born enslaved in Holly Springs, MS, in July 1862 during the American Civil War. When the war ended and the Reconstruction Era began, Wells’ parents, James and Lizzie Wells, became active in Republican politics. Her father, a skilled carpenter, was a member of the Freedman’s Aid Society, which founded Shaw University (now Rust College), a school for those recently freed from enslavement, in Holly Springs. James Wells was a trustee at Shaw and Wells and her siblings attended the school, as did her mother. In 1878, the death of her parents and infant brother from yellow fever forced Wells to leave school at age 16 to care for her five siblings.

Despite her young age, Wells was able to get a job as a teacher at a local elementary school to support the family while her grandmother cared for the children during the day. After her grandmother died, Wells moved with two of her sisters to live with an aunt in Memphis, TN, where she continued to work as a teacher, while attending Fisk University in Nashville during summer breaks. In 1884, while riding a train from Memphis to Nashville, a train conductor ordered Wells to sit in the colored section of the train despite the fact that she had purchased a first-class ticket. When she refused, the train crew forcibly removed her from the train; Wells protested and defiantly bit a crew member’s hand. Wells sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement in circuit court, although in 1887 the decision was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In 1895, she married attorney and fellow activist Ferdinand Barnett, founder of the Conservator newspaper, and changed her last name to Wells-Barnett. The couple went on to have four children together in addition to Barnett’s two children from a prior marriage. Wells was an active and involved mother while continuing both her journalism career and activism.

Later, in 1886, Ida Wells-Barnett united Black women. She joined with other Black women leaders to found the National Association of Colored Women, a national federation of Black women’s clubs that worked to better Black women’s lives through a variety of programs including job training, child care, recreation and wage equity advocacy, as well as working toward civil rights and women’s suffrage and against lynching.


1 Black Women’s Suffrage,

Next Week: Conclusion

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