Journalist, activist, and researcher: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

February 25, 2021

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a prominent journalist, activist, and researcher, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her lifetime, she battled sexism, racism, and violence. As a skilled writer, Wells-Barnett also used her abilities as a journalist to shed light on the conditions of African Americans throughout the South.

Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862. She was born into slavery during the Civil War. Once the war ended Wells-Barnett’s parents became politically active in Reconstruction Era politics. Her parents instilled into her the importance of education. Wells-Barnett enrolled at Rust College but was expelled when she started a dispute with the university president. In 1878, Wells-Barnett went to visit her grandmother. While she was there Wells-Barnett was informed that a yellow fever epidemic had hit her hometown. The disease took both of Wells-Barnett’s parents and her infant brother. Left to raise her brothers and sister, she took a job as a teacher so that she could keep the family together. Eventually, Wells-Barnett moved her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee. There she continued to work as an educator.

In 1884, Wells-Barnett filed a lawsuit against a train car company in Memphis for unfair treatment. She had been thrown off a first-class train, despite having a ticket. Although she won the case on the local level, the ruling was eventually overturned in federal court. After the lynching of one of her friends, Wells-Barnett turned her attention to white mob violence. She became skeptical about the reasons black men were lynched and set out to investigate several cases. She published her findings in a pamphlet and wrote several columns in local newspapers. Her expose about an 1892 lynching enraged locals, who burned her press and drove her from Memphis. After a few months, the threats became so bad she was forced to move to Chicago, Illinois.

In 1893, Wells-Barnett, joined other African American leaders in calling for a boycott of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The boycotters accused the exposition committee of locking out African Americans and negatively portraying the black community. In 1895, Wells-Barnett married famed African American lawyer Ferdinand Barnett. Together, the couple had four children. Throughout her career Wells-Barnett, balanced motherhood with her activism.

Michelle Duster with a portrait of her great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Wells-Barnett traveled internationally, shedding light on lynching to foreign audiences. Abroad, she openly confronted white women in the suffrage movement who ignored lynching. Because of her stance, she was often ridiculed and ostracized by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States. Nevertheless, Wells-Barnett remained active in the women’s rights movement. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club which was created to address issues dealing with civil rights and women’s suffrage. She was in Niagara Falls for the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Late in her career Wells-Barnett focused on urban reform in the growing city of Chicago. She died on March 25, 1931 and was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2020.

Though she has passed Ida’s legacy still lives on however. Michelle Duster, a Columbia College Chicago faculty member and great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, has immersed herself into legacy of Wells’ life. Ms. Duster, who also lives in Chicago, speaks widely about her great-grandmother’s legacy, a theme explored in her book “Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells.” Duster is creating an initiative to educate people about the involvement of Black women in the suffrage movement and how it ties into today. She is currently raising money to raise a memorial to her great-grandmother at the site at which her house once stood in Chicago.

In addition to exposing lynching as state-sanctioned murder, Michelle said her great-grandmother also encouraged Black people to exercise the power they did have, organizing boycotts of white-owned businesses and streetcars and a mass exodus of Black residents from Memphis. “That’s why they wanted to kill her,” Michelle said.

Michelle once said in an interview, “Ida B. Wells did not allow herself to be marginalized or silenced. Even though she faced threats, lost property, and endured criticism, she felt what she had to say was important enough to say it. She refused to be silent. She refused to make herself small. She stood up. Spoke out. And she made a difference for all of us.”

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