Teacher, journalist, and lecturer, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was renowned for voicing
the horrors of lynching which she barely escaped herself when the boycotts she advised
in the Free Speech and Headlight (local black newspaper, later the Free Speech, for
which she began writing in 1887 and of which she became part owner) brought downtown
Memphis business to a near standstill. Orphaned at sixteen, along with seven younger
brothers and sisters, she began teaching, first in rural Mississippi near her Holly
Springs birthplace and later in Memphis, to keep her family together.
She pioneered the legal defense of civil rights by suing a railroad company for forcing
her out of the first-class carriage for which she had paid. When her articles critical
of "the Memphis Board of Education for separate, inferior Negro schools led to her
dismissal as a teacher in 1891," she began writing full-time. Using the pen name Iola,
she reported racial discrimination. Following the 1892 lynching in Memphis of three
young black businessmen, she wrote that "Negroes should leave the city" or boycott
the streetcars. When the Free Speech was blamed for the paralysis of Memphis business,
"A white mob demolished her offices and threatened to lynch her if they found her"
(Historic Black Memphians 23).
She fled to New York, becoming an international figure in the fight against lynching:
"She compiled the first statistical pamphlet on lynching in 1895, The Red Record:
Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Cases of Lynching in the United Sates, 1892-1894.
Her speeches in England were influential in the formation of the powerful British
Anti-Lynching Society" (HBM 23). As convener of and speaker at the conference that
spawned the NAACP, she organized (1913) the Alpha Suffrage Club, the earliest black
women's political group. In 1895, she married Ferdinand Barnett, attorney and editor-founder
of the Chicago Conservator; they had four children. A Chicago housing project is named
in her honor, and in 1990 this civil rights activist was honored by a US postal stamp
in celebration of Black History Month.
Dr. Joan Weatherly
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.