She Is More Than a Journalist, a Civil Rights Activist, and a Suffragette. Who Is She?
Ida B. Wells.
There are many stories about the life of Ida B. Wells. If you read as many articles as I have, you discover that the facts and sequences don’t always match although there is a great deal of overlap. So instead of giving you a chronological description of her life, I want to share three major themes that I hope will intrigue you. There certainly is much to learn about this inspiring, smart, brave woman:
Ida B. Wells was More Than a Journalist
Ida B. Wells was More than a Civil Rights Activist
Ida B. Wells was More than a Suffragist
You'll find many articles that describe her as a journalist, as a civil right activist, and as a suffragist. But in each of these three categories, she was so much more. Many of her actions were oversized -- so much more than we could expect.
And of course, as is true in most lives, these three areas were often woven together as they created the strong braid of courage and inspiration in the life Ida Wells.
MORE THAN A JOURNALIST
Ida B. Wells bought a one-third share in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper in 1889 when she was just 27. Previously, she had written for a number of other newspapers. Specifically, from 1883 through 1891, she wrote under the pen name of Iola for various Black newspapers.
Given the breadth of her experience, she was appointed editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. This meant she was the first female in the US to both co-own and edit a Black newspaper.
A Strong Marketer
I surmise Ida Wells was also a good, perhaps great, marketer. Why do I say that? Because she began printing on pink paper to make her newspaper stand out, shortened the name to Free Speech to make it more memorable, and embarked on a campaign to increase circulation. And yes, circulation rose from fifteen hundred to four thousand. Today, any one with those accomplishments would be considered a big success.
By 1892, Ida had actively taken up the cause of documenting the lynchings of Blacks in the south. She traveled for two months in the dangerous Jim Crow South for her reporting. Her thorough research into more than 700 lynchings and into the false narratives surrounding lynchings drove many of her editorials when she returned to Memphis.
An Editorial that Changed Her Life
In May of 1892, Ida B. Wells left Memphis to attend a conference in Philadelphia and then planned to go on to New York to meet with T. Thomas Fortune, the editor of the well-respected New York Age.
But before she left, she wrote an editorial based on her research into the lynchings of Blacks — an editorial that was printed while she was gone — an editorial that inflamed a group of whites so much that they destroyed the newspaper equipment, ran her partner out of town, and threatened to kill her on sight.
Ida knew none of this until she was in T. Thomas Fortune's office for their meeting. He told her of the destruction of her newspaper as well as the warning from friends that she should never return.
Before I share what happened next in her life, let me step to the side and say...
…in Chicago in 1878, 11 years before Ida bought partial ownership of the Free Speech, a lawyer Ferdinand L. Barnett and two others founded the first Black newspaper in Chicago — the Chicago Conservator.
After four years as editor, Barnett decided to return to his law practice while maintaining his partial ownership of the paper. This situation continued until 1895.
What happened then?
Well, I need to back up by two years. Ferdinand Barnett and Ida Wells met in conjunction with activist work on behalf of Blacks at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Their mutual interests and respect led to love and then to marriage in 1895 — soon after Ferdinand had sold his share of the newspaper to Ida.
As an indication of how well both Ferdinand and Ida were known, their wedding announcement appeared on the front page of The New York Times.
Long Career as Journalist and Publisher
Ida continued to publish the Chicago Conservator until 1914.
Yes, She Wrote. But Ida B. Wells Was So Much More than a Journalist.
MORE THAN A CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST
The Merging of Journalism and Civil Rights Activism
As you just read, Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist. And her research for articles and editorials heightened her awareness of the rampant racism that led to the terrible and gruesome lynchings in the South. Her journalistic endeavors made her aware of her own need to become in civil rights activist -- changed her life because she knew she could not just write about injustice. She needed to address it with actions as well as words.
She even tangled with President Woodrow Wilson. What?
The Federal government was well integrated at the time that Woodrow Wilson became president. Blacks were employed in all branches of the government and many held high level positions. But Wilson changed that when he called for a Federal workforce that was segregated by race. He took us back to a previous era. He even proclaimed that the KKK
This meant a layoff of some Black employees, and reductions in income for other Black civil service employees. This served to increase the income gap between Blacks and white.
Ida Wells knew segregation was a step backward for Blacks and so she pushed Wilson to end the newly established practice. This, of course, was only one of the many ways she worked to overcome racial inequities. She wrote:
"I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said."
The documentation of more than 700 lynchings and the writing about the false narrative surrounding lynchings became one piece of her activism. Other significant actions:
Co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Vice-President of the National Equal Rights League
Ida was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). And while she worked with it. she eventually felt the NAACP did not have adequate action goals. At that point, she left NAACP to join the well-established National Equal Rights League. In fact, she became its vice president 50 years after it was founded.
MORE THAN A SUFFRAGIST
As if being a journalist and civil rights activist were not enough, Ida B. Wells was also an important figure in the suffrage movement — and the main reason we are focusing on her life in this RosieCentral blog.
The suffrage movement is primarily associated with whites. Most of the names you can recall, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Amelia Bloomer are white. But that is an incomplete picture. There were Blacks who worked to overcome both racism and sexism and to extend the right to vote to all women, not just white women.
She's Our Hero
Ida B. Wells, the hero of this blog, founded the National Association of Colored Women and the Alpha Suffrage Club and helped found the Republican Women’s Club in Illinois— organizations that worked to overcome racism AND to promote the right to vote for all women.
You may have heard about one incident that shows the political smarts and bravery in one now famous event.
Wells agreed to participate in the first suffrage parade in Washington, DC in 1913. It had been organized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association and was not to be an integrated event. Blacks could participate, but they were to walk at the end of the parade.
Ida B. Wells was active in the Illinois suffrage delegation and intended to march with them. When she was told she should instead join the other Blacks at the back of the parade, she just moved to the sidelines, standing with other parade onlookers.
Then, as the Illinois delegation walked by, she quickly joined them and continued on for the rest of the march. Her delegation welcomed her and the NAWSA organizers knew it was better to not create a fuss.
Ida B. Wells was not to be silenced or relegated to an inferior status. All her experiences as a journalist and as an activist were brought to bear on her contributions as a suffragist.
Here’s to Ida B. Wells --
an inspiring, brave, forthright woman
“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.” ~ Ida B. Wells
NOTES FROM THE PRESENT
Ida B. Wells died in 1931 in Chicago where she lived with her husband Ferdinand Barnett. In the previous year, she attended a Negro History meeting. Her storied journalism career, her important documentation of lynchings, her activism for the elimination of racism, her co-founding of NAACP and several activist organizations, her work as a suffragist -- none of that was acknowledged. She sat in the audience and was never celebrated while many of her peers were.
She did not seek fame. And yet, one cannot help but feel her disappointment at the lack of acknowledgement for all her achievements.
Finally, Now Acknowledged...
February 1, 1990, the U.S. Post Office issued the Ida B. Wells stamp.
In 2020, Ida B. Wells was recognized with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
June 30, 2021, The Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Monument was dedicated in a South Side Chicago neighborhood -- not far from where Ida lived.
July 16, 2021, a life-size statue of Ida B. Wells was dedicated at Beale and Fourth Street in Memphis -- next to the original office of The Free Speech newspaper. The day was chosen to honor the159th birthday of Ida B. Wells.
We hope you'll take away the
inspirational message of the life of
Ida B. Wells
Stand Up for Your Principles
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If you’ve missed any of our other August Suffrage Month blogs,
here are the links:
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