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Political Education

The Courage of Ida Wells Barnett

Ida Wells’s Beginnings

Ida Bell Wells, daughter of James and Lizzie Wells, was born into slavery during the Civil War on July 16th, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Wells and her parents were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation just a few months after Ida’s birth. 

Wells’s parents were activists in Reconstruction Era politics. James worked on behalf of the Freedman’s Aid Society and was a founder of a school for former slaves, Shaw College, now Rust College. Wells became responsible for raising her six brothers and sisters when her parents died from yellow fever. She was only sixteen years old. 

Ida Wells attended Rust College. The college expelled her after a dispute with the college president. She continued her education at Fisk University in Nashville and later worked as a teacher in Memphis. 

Wells’s Advocacy Begins

In 1891 she became a vocal critic of the segregated public school system and was fired. In 1884, twelve years before Homer Plessy’s legal challenge to segregated facilities, Wells was thrown off a first-class train for refusing to move out of a whites-only car. Ida filed a lawsuit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company for unfair treatment. She won the case at the local level, but that ruling was overturned in federal court. 

Ida Wells wrote editorials in black newspapers under the pseudonym “Iola,” arguing against Jim Crow laws. She wrote about lynchings in The New York Age, an African American newspaper. Wells bought a share of a Memphis newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight. In 1892 she published a pamphlet, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all Its Phases.” In 1895 Ida wrote the book A Red Record, debunking the myths used by mobs to justify the lynching of African Americans. In addition, she wrote articles in local newspapers. After writing about an 1892 lynching, an angry mob destroyed the offices of The Free Speech and threatened to murder Ida. 

Ida Wells visited England, establishing the British Anti-Lynching Society in 1894. Ida eventually moved to Chicago. African Americans were excluded from the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Ida wrote a pamphlet entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, ” funded and supported by Frederick Douglass and Ferdinand Barnett, a lawyer and editor. 

After Ida’s Marriage

In 1895 Ida B. Wells married Ferdinand Barnett. In 1896 Wells-Barnett helped establish the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Ida Wells-Barnett and her husband bought a Romanesque Revival-style stone residence in Chicago in 1919 and lived there until 1929. The Ida B. Wells-Barnett House is a National Historic Landmark. 

Ida B. Wells-Barnett took issue publicly with those white women in the suffrage movement for ignoring lynching. In 1908 there were brutal assaults on the African American community in Springfield, Illinois. In 1909 Ida B. Wells-Barnett attended a conference to create an organization that would later become the NAACP. 

The former teacher went on to establish the first African American kindergarten in her community. In 1930 Wells-Barnett made an unsuccessful run for the Illinois state senate. 

Ida B. Wells-Barnett died on March 25th, 1931. She was relentless in her advocacy of justice even when faced with the threat of death.

I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett

Sources

Thanks and a tip of the hat Wikipedia for the image.

https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ida-b-wells-barnett

https://www.biography.com/activist/ida-b-wells

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