Friday, August 07, 2009


by Cleo Brown

Ida B. Wells, a pioneering Civil Rights Activist who agitated on behalf of the anti-lynch law in especially but not exclusively, the Southern United States, was able to pursue her agenda of Civil Rights Activism through her writings in the newspaper as a journalist, and through her physical agitation as a suffragette on behalf of the right of women to vote because she was a female who did not threaten the white power-structure as a Black Man might have after the end of Reconstruction in the United States.

Ida Wells was born on July 16th, 1862 in Holy Springs, Mississippi. Her parents were James and Elizabeth Wells. James Wells had been a carpenter while his wife, named Elizabeth, had been a renowned cook. Since James and Elizabeth Wells were both slaves, Ida and most of her eight brothers and sisters were also born into slavery. With the adoption by the Southern States, in 1865, of The Emancipation Proclamation The Wells were free. This also signaled the end of The Civil War with General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia in April of 1865.

With the end of The Civil War and the freeing of the slaves, James Wells felt compelled to attend Shaw University which had been a school provided for the newly freed slaves by The Freedman's Bureau. The Freedman's Bureau had been put into place by The Republican-backed Presidential Administration of Abraham Lincoln, and by Congress to help the newly freed Blacks assimilate freedom by providing the freed slaves with education, housing, clothes, food, jobs, medical care, and other necessities of life. Shaw University is now known as Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

When she was a teenager, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen years old, Ida lost both of her parents and her ten month old baby brother to Yellow-Fever. Originally, the authorities had wanted to place Ida and her siblings with her Aunts and Uncles. Ida, however, who wanted to keep her immediate family together, vetoed this idea seeking and securing a job as a teacher which enabled her to raise her brothers and her sisters as well as to provide for them along with the help of her grandmother. Ida B. Wells taught African-American students on behalf of The Freedman's Bureau until the Bureau disbanded.

It is important to note that Ida Bells grew up amidst an atmosphere of increasing economic, political, and social advantage and opportunities for African Americans. It must have been, therefore, particularly difficult for Ida Wells to accept the decreasing opportunities for African-Americans as well as the physical oppression of Blacks which she began to witness due to the end of Reconstruction in around 1876. Having lost her teaching job due to the dissolution of The Freedman's Bureau in Mississippi via harassment and intimidation by The Klu Klux Klan, Ida Wells moved to Memphis, Tennessee by 1880.

In Memphis, Tennessee Ida Wells attended Fisk University. At Fisk University she began her career as a Civil Rights Activist when she began to protest the failure of The United States' Government to grant women the right to vote. Since men had been powerless to stop the spread of The Klu Klux Klan as w ell as to continue the progress of The Reconstruction Era, Ida B. Wells believed that the power of the vote would be better utilized in the hands of women. After two-and-a-half years at Fisk, Ida Wells secured a job as a teacher in Memphis teaching extremely poor "back-woods" people the fundamental basics of a standard education. First, she began teaching during the summers, but then she secured employment as a country school elementary teacher for ten months out of the school year.

In 1884, Ida Wells - like Rosa Parks in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama - refused to give up her seat to a white patron on a Memphis Train. Eventually, she needed to be dragged from the car by the conductor of the train and his colleagues as the all-white clientele on the train applauded the conductor's actions. This shameful encounter took place eight years before Homer Plessey in the Plessey vs. Ferguson Decision (1896) was also forced by a conductor to leave an all white car on a train in Louisiana. Unlike the 1896 decision , however, which institutionalized racism and segregation in the South by making segregation legal, Ida B. Wells won her court case at the lower level being awarded $500.00 in damages. Unfortunately, however, by 1887 this ruling was overturned by The Tennessee Supreme Court who ordered Ms. Wells to pay the $500.00 back as well as to pay an additional $200.00 in damages to the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railroad Company.

Ida Wells was forced to turn to Journalism after she lost her job as an educator for criticizing The Board of Education for its treatment of Blacks. Ida Wells wrote articles for The Evening Star, The Living Way, and Headlight. In 1889 she became the co-owner and an editor at Free Speech. She believed that the re-a- mergence of racism in The United States and the continued oppression of African-American people was as the result of a Eurocentric perspective which sought to keep African-American people under white thumbs by denying Blacks the right to vote through the economic castration of African-Americans.

Re-in forcing her belief was the case of her three closest friends named Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart who owned a Black-owned Business ,named The People's Grocery Company, in Memphis. The Black-owned Grocery Store made the three men economically independent and, therefore, arrogant in demeanor to their White Counterparts. Ida had, at the same time, been writing in Free Speech about cases in which Black Men, Women, and children throughout the South were being lynched for the most trivial indiscretions such as public drunkenness.

She also documented the cases of Black Men being lynched for the alleged rape of white women while white men continued to fall in love with and molest "mulatto, octoroon, and darker-skinned Black Women." She did not believe, however, that lynching occurred due to rape, but due to the economic submission of the Black race due to the Caucasian's need to dominate. In retaliation, because of her condemnation of the lynch mob, the lynch mob destroyed her business while she was away in Pittsburgh. If, however, she had been a man she would have been lynched with her three friends. It is telling, however, that once she, herself, became a business owner that her business was ruined and she was threatened to the extent that she was unable to return to Memphis.

Ida Wells, after the lynching of her friends and the destruction of her business, was unable to return to Memphis. Consequently, she relocated on the East Coast advocating the migration of other African-Americans from the Memphis, Tennessee Area since they were no longer protected by the law. In Chicago, Ida Wells continued to advocate on behalf of Anti-Lynch Laws as well as the right of women to vote. She also lobbied on behalf of the end of segregation and Jim Crow Policy. An Anti-Lynching Bill was extremely important to her since, she estimated, at least one-hundred men, women, and children were killed each year through lynching in the United States. It has been estimated that between 1900 and 1944 at least 4,000 Black people were lynched in the United States.

From Chicago Ida Wells moved to New York briefly. There she met W. E. B. Dubois. Along with Dubois, James Weldon Johnson, and Mary White Ovington; Ida B. Wells founded The National Association for The Advancement of Colored People. This group did not approve of the conciliatory policies of Booker T. Washington. Particularly, did Ida Wells disapprove of Washington's plan of Industrial Education for the entire Black Race. Ida Wells did eventually return to Chicago where she continued to advocate for an Anti-Lynch Bill and on behalf of Women's suffrage and against Jim Crow.

She married Ferdinand Lee Barnett in 1895 who was an attorney and a publisher. Consequently, she published many articles on lynching and several books including her autobiographies. The Barnetts, who became wealthy, had four children with a fifth child having died in infancy. Ida B. Wells ran for public office in 1930 (Illinois State Senator) but was defeated. She died on April 25th, 1931 at the age of sixty-eight from Uremia. Had she been a man, she would have been lynched years earlier for her outspoken use of the pen and paper to condemn established White America. She was quite a courageous woman!

Cleo Brown
is a new editor to the blog Hip-Hop, she is a moderate Republican who works as as The Dean of Student Affairs in a GED Preparation Program in NYC. Cleo has a Master’s Degree in Contemporary African-American History from The University of California at Davis.

1 comment:

wedding said...

It is important to note that Ida Bells grew up amidst an atmosphere of increasing economic, political, and social advantage and opportunities for African Americans.