IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT Biography - People in the News and Media


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Name: Ida B. Wells                                                                   
Born: 16 July 1862 Holly Springs, Mississippi                                         
Died: 25 March 1931 Chicago, Illinois                                                 
Ida B. Wells, also known as Ida B. Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 - March 25, 1931),   
was an African American civil rights advocate and an early women's rights             
advocate active in the Woman Suffrage Movement. Fearless in her opposition to         
lynchings, Wells documented hundreds of these atrocities.                             
Ida B. Wells: born in Holly Springs, Mississippi to a carpenter, James Wells,         
and Elizabeth "Lizzie Bell" Warrenton Wells, both of whom were slaves until           
freed at the end of the Civil War. When she was fourteen, her parents and her         
youngest sibling, a brother only nine months old, died of yellow fever during an     
epidemic that swept through the South. At a meeting following the funeral,           
friends and relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children should be         
farmed out to various aunts and uncles. Wells was devastated by the idea and, to     
keep the family together, dropped out of high school and found employment as a       
teacher in a black school. Despite difficulties, Wells was able to continue her       
education by working her way through Rust College in Holly Springs.                   
In 1880, Wells moved to Memphis with all of her siblings except for her 15-year-old   
brother, January. There she got a summer job. When possible, she attended summer     
sessions at Fisk University in Nashville. Wells held strong political opinions       
and she upset many people with her views on women's rights. When she was 24, she     
wrote, "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring     
men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to         
gratify a revenge."                                                                   
Wells became a public figure in Memphis when, in 1884, she led a campaign             
against segregation on the local railway. A conductor of the Chesapeake, Ohio &       
South Western Railroad Company told her to give up her seat on the train to a         
white man and ordered her into the smoking or "Jim Crow" car, which was already       
crowded with other passengers. The federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 which banned     
discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color in theaters, hotels,             
transport, and other public accommodations had just been declared                     
unconstitutional in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), and several railroad               
companies were able to continue racial segregation of their passengers. Wells         
refused to give up her seat, 71 years before Rosa Parks, and the conductor, who       
had to get assistance from two other men, dragged her out of the car. When she       
returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an attorney to sue the railroad. She       
won her case in the local circuit court, but the railroad company appealed to         
the Supreme Court of Tennessee, which reversed the lower court's ruling in 1887.     
Wells, in her mid-thirties, c. 1897.                                                 
During her participation in women's suffrage parades, her refusal to stand in         
the back because she was black resulted in the beginning of her media publicity.     
In 1889, she became co-owner and editor of Free Speech, an anti-segregationist       
newspaper based in Memphis on Beale Street. In 1892, however, she was forced to       
leave the city because her editorials in the paper were seen as too agitating.       
In one of her articles, written after three of her friends who owned a grocery       
store were attacked and then lynched because they were taking business away from     
white competitors, she encouraged blacks to leave Memphis, saying, "there is ....     
only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither         
protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but           
takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons." Many       
African-Americans did leave, and others organized boycotts of white-owned             
businesses. As a result of this and other investigative reporting, Wells's           
newspaper office was ransacked, and Wells herself had to leave for Chicago.           
She also published in 1892 her famous pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in         
All Its Phases. This pamphlet, along with her 1895 A Red Record, documented her       
research on and campaign against lynching. Having examined many accounts of           
lynching based on alleged "rape of white women", she concluded that Southerners       
concocted the rape excuse to hide their real reason for lynching black men:           
black economic progress, which threatened not only white Southerners'                 
pocketbooks but also their ideas about black inferiority.                             
In 1893, she and other black leaders, among them Frederick Douglass, organized a     
boycott of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At the suggestion       
of white abolitionist and anti-lynching crusader Albion Tourgee, Wells and her       
coalition produced a pamphlet to be distributed during the exposition. Called         
Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition, it detailed     
in English and a few other languages the workings of Southern lynchings and a         
handful of other issues impinging on black Americans. She later reported to           
Tourgee that 2,000 copies had been distributed at the fair.                           
Also in 1893, Wells found herself thinking of filing a libel suit against two         
black Memphis attorneys. She again turned to Tourgee, who had trained and             
practiced as a lawyer and judge, for possible free legal help. Deeply in debt,       
Tourgee could not afford to do the work, but he asked his friend Ferdinand L.         
Barnett if he could. Barnett accepted the pro bono job. Two years later, he           
and Wells were married, and she set an early precedent as being one of the first     
married American women to keep her own last name with her husband's. This was         
very unusual for that time.                                                           
In 1892, Wells went to Great Britain at the behest of British Quaker Catherine       
Impey. An opponent of imperialism and proponent of racial equality, Impey wanted     
to be sure that the British public was informed about the problem of lynching.       
Although Wells and her speeches, complete with at least one grisly photograph         
showing grinning white children posing beneath a suspended corpse, caused a stir     
among doubtful audiences, Wells was paid so little that she could barely pay her     
travel expenses.                                                                     
During her second British lecture tour, again arranged by Impey, Wells wrote         
about her trip for Chicago's Daily Inter Ocean in a regular column, "Ida B.           
Wells Abroad". In doing so, she became the first black woman paid to be a             
correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper. (Tourgee had been writing a           
column for the same paper, which was the local Republican Party organ and             
competitor to the Democratic Chicago Tribune.)                                       
After her retirement, Wells wrote her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928).     
She died of uremia in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68.