Monday, February 25, 2008

Ida B. Wells-Barnett - Crusader for Justice

Long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, a young school teacher refused to move from the Ladies Car on the train on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. When she was removed from the train, she sued and won proving that a woman of color could make her voice heard. Although the decision was later over-turned, Ida B. Wells-Barnett kept raising her voice, educating Americans and Europeans about the horrors of lynching, and other social injustices that were being heaped on African-Americans in the 19th century.

Ida wasn't one to back down and compromise. She was tough, and argumentative, and she clashed with several prominent African-American leaders of the time compromising instead of standing firm. She also clashed with various whites including temperance advocate Frances Willard. She owned newspapers and wrote articles at a time when most women were relegated to writing what was known than as the 'women's page.' She hyphenated her name at a time when most women automatically took their husband's name. Living in Chicago, she started the first kindergarten for black children. Although she lost a race for the Illinois State Senate, just the fact that she ran, ten years after women won the vote, is a testament to her courage and ambition.


What shaped this remarkable woman? She was the eldest of 8 children, born on July 16 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi to James Wells, a carpenter and Elizabeth "Lizzie Bell" Warrenton Wells who had were slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, only freed slaves held in border states or in the Union. It wasn't until the South lost the Civil War that the entire Wells family was free. Education was very important in the Wells family. Ida's father was a heavily involved in local politics, and a proud member of the Republican party which seemed to promise so much to freed blacks after the war. He was a member of the Loyal League, a Mason, and he campaigned for local black candidates. His support for the Republican party led to a rupture with his former master, who had kept as a paid employee after emancipation. When James refused to vote for the Democratic party candidate his employer Mr. Bolling favored, the Wells family discovered they were no longer welcome on Bolling property.

A yellow fever struck Mississippi in 1878 and Ida’s parents and one of her siblings died. Ida rose to the challenge of taking care of her remaining siblings and keeping the family together. She decided, at 16, to take the teaching certification examination, passing with flying colors. Despite the difficulties of raising 6 younger brothers and sisters, while teaching, Ida still managed to keep up her education, working her way through Rust College.

In 1881, Ida decided to move to Memphis where she started teaching at a country school at a in northern Mississippi just across the state line from the city. Every day she rode the train to work. Until the day that she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company for trying to force her to sit in the smoking car when she had paid for a first class pass. Ida later wrote in her autobiography,"I refused, saying that the forward car closest to the locomotive]was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies' car, I proposed to stay. . . The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn't try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out."

White passengers cheered from the train. The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 had banned discrimination on the basis of race, creed or color in theaters, hotels, transport, and other public accomodations had just been declared unconstitutional which led to several railroad companies to start practicing segregation. Black newspapers throughout the country reprinted her first article about her railroad court case. With the help of a second lawyer (her first lawyer took money to throw the case), Ida actually won her lawsuit and was awarded $500 in damages. However, in 1887, the railroad company appealed the decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court and won, reversing the court’s decision. Ida was required to return the $500 and pay $200 in damages to the railroad.


While living in Memphis, Ida availed herself of the social life that was available. Whenever possible, she attended classes at Fisk University. Her teaching in Memphis schools led her to write articles for The Evening Star, a black-owned newspaper, about the inequalities among the separated black and white schools. She began writing for another local black newspaper The Free Speech and Headlight of which she became a eventual co-owner and editor. The owners had read Ida's articles written under the pseudonymn "Iola." In her editorials, Ida took on the violence against blacks, disfranchisement, the poor school system, and the failure of blacks to fight for their rights. She traveled the country getting subscribers and earning more and more money. After she became a co-owner, Ida started printing the paper on pink paper so it would stand out.

In 1889, she was elected Secretary of the Colored Press Association, where she received the nickname“The Princess of the Press.” Her writing style was simple and direct because, as she said in her autobiography, The Crusade for Justice, she “needed to help people with little or no schooling deal with problems in a simple, common-sense language.”

Fired from her teaching job for writing about the inequalities between black and white schools, Ida became a full-time journalist. In 1892, a long-time friend Tom Moss, a respected black store owner, was lynched along with two of his friends after he defended his store against an attack by whites. Wells was outraged, particularly since nothing was done to bring the culprits to justice. She wrote a scathing series of editorials, encouragiing black residents of Memphis to leave town, and attacking the practice of lynching. She also encouraged those blacks who remained to boycott white owned businesses.

"Lynch's Law" which became corrupted to 'lynch law' and then lynching originated during the American Revolution when Charles Lynch, a Virginia justice of the peace, ordered punishment against those individuals who supported the Tory cause. After the Civil War, lynching became a form of terrorism practiced by white mobs against mostly innocent blacks. Instead of waiting for due process of law, organized mobs would take the law into their own hands. Many of the victims while being hung, were set on fire, or shot.

During her investigations, Ida discovered that many of the accused, if they had been accused of raping a white woman, were really involved in relationships of mutual consent but because the woman was white, and it was assumed that no white woman would willingly be involved with a black man, he was accused of rape. Nine times out of ten, the accused were arrested with no evidence or what evidence there was turned out to be extremely circumstantial. Confessions were obtained under coercion. Many others were lynched for trivial offenses such as not paying a debt, disrespecting whites, or pubilc drunkeness.

There were whites who were victims of lynching, mainly white Republicans who had traveled down south to help register freed slaves to vote. Lynching was the preferred method to control the African-American male population, to keep him in his place, basically poor and illiterate. During the years 1880 and 1951, 3437 American Americans and 1,293 whites were lynched in the United States.

Ida B. Wells wrote many pamphlets exposing the horrors of lynching and defending the victims. While Ida was out of town, the newspaper was destroyed by a mob and she was warned to never return to Memphis for fear for her life. Ida moved to Chicago after a short sojurn in New York. While living in Chicago, she met Ferdinand Barnett, a prominent Chicago attorney and widower, who she eventually married at the relatively advanced age of 33. She also wrote for his newspaper, the Chicago Conservator, which she became owner and editor for after their marriage.

In 1893, living now in Chicago, as part of a boycott, she wrote a pamphlet called “The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition” to protest the exclusion of African-Americans from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The pamphlet was printed in several languages and 2,000 copies were distributed at the fair. In 1895, she wrote “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States: 1892, 1893, and 1894,” which included all her research of the past few years. She started traveling the country asking for support in putting a stop to lynching. People began to ask her to speak at organization meetings and functions. She would spend the rest of her life writing and giving speeches throughout the country and in Europe.

Despite her happiness with Ferdinand Barnett, Ida wasn't about to stop writing and lecturing. She undertook two lecture tours of England at the request of British Quaker, Catherine Impey. The goal was to convince the English of the horrors of lynching, since the United States and England had a special relationship (despite the Revolution and the war of 1812 and English support for the South during the Civil War), if England spoke out against lynching, perhaps politicians in American would take notice. While in England, Ida launched the London Anti-Lynching Committe. Ida's tours were a great success, although it led to an a rupture between her and one of the sponsors of her English tour, when she refused to condemn the decision of one of the women who fell in love with a man outside her race. She even wrote about her tour for the Daily Inter-Ocean in Chicago becoming the first black woman to paid as a correspondant for a major white newspaper.


After the birth of her four children, Ida continued to lecture, but like most working mothers, she took her children with her, asking for baby-sitters at every stop on her lecture tour. Eventually the demands of motherhood kept Ida in Chicago but she continued to write and speak out about injustice. She refused to walk in the back in women's suffrage parades because she was black and she fell out with Susan B. Anthony for getting married and starting a family instead of devoting herself solely to the cause of suffrage and the establishment of anti-lynching law (which didn't come about until 1918).

Ida kept busy over the years while raising her four children, and her two step-children. She served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council and she was part of a delegation to President William McKinley to seek justice after the lynching in South Carolina of a black postman. Unfortunately McKinley was too preocuppied by the Spanish-American war and the aftermath to give the matter much attention. She also worked with Jane Addams to defeat an attempt to segregate Chicago's public school system.

In 1901, the Barnetts bought the first house east of State Street to be owned by a black family. Despite harassment and threats, they continued to live in the neighborhood. Wells-Barnett was also a founding member of the NAACP, but she later withdrew her membership because she considered the organization not militant enough. In her writing and lectures, she often criticized middle-class blacks for not being active enough in helping the poor in the black community.

Ida became interested in the settlement movement, and in particular the work that Jane Addams had done with Hull House. In 1910 she helped found and became president of the Negro Fellowship League, which established a settlement house in Chicago to serve the many African Americans newly arrived from the South. To help support the settlement house, she worked for the city as a probation officer, donating most of her salary to the organization. Unfortunately due to competition from other groups, and her own poor health, the League closed its doors in 1920.

In 1928, shewrote her autobiography which she called Crusade for Justice . It was finally published in 1970, edited by her daughter Ada. In 1931, she died of uremia poisoning at the age of 69, largely forgotten. In 1990, she was honored by having a postage stamp issued with her likeness.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, although she was born a slave, grew up to be one of the greatest pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement. In a time when most women, white and black were restricted to either the roles of wife and mother or low paying factory jobs, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a teacher, journalist, suffragette, civil rights activist, political candidate, wife, mother, grandmother, and the leader of the anti-lynching movement in the United States. She knew and was friends with some of the era's political leaders including Frederick Douglass, President Mckinley, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Walter White, and Susan B. Anthony.

Without Ida B. Wells-Barnett, there would be no Rosa Parks, no Shirley Chisholm. She stands large as a seminal figure in the history of Post Civil War America.


Sources: Wikipedia

Ida B. Wells - Mother of the Civil Rights Movement - Dennis Brindell Fradin & Judith Bloom Fradin
The Red Record by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Ida B. Wells-Barnett House in Chicago

Lynch Law by Ida B. Wells

5 comments:

La Belle Americaine said...

I've always admired her. Great article!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks! I had actually never heard of her until a few years ago when I was researching something else. I think more people should know about her, not just as a crusader, but also as a journalist.

Sharon said...

I couldn't agree more so (after missing it for Black History Month) I have scandalously cross-posted your fabulous article on my Chicago history blog. Really a good piece! And, more importantly, a remarkable woman.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Sharon, I appreciate it. I read your blog post on Chicago women, and she fits right in. I would love someone to make a movie about her and also Lucy Parsons. I think that more Americans, both black and white, should know about these remarkable women in US History who took a stand and fought against injustice in an age when women were still expected to be decorative and maybe do a little charity work, but certainly not to take a strong stand. It makes me proud to be a woman and an American.

Sharon said...

I want to recommend one of the books I recommended in today's post on Chicago History. The "Walking with Women through Chicago History II" is packed with amazing (and scandalous) Chicago women. Perhaps future subjects of your great blog?