Black History Month — Meet Ida B. Wells: Journalist, Anti-Lynching Activist, and Women’s Rights Campaigner
Ida B. Wells would probably have been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement if she were alive today.
Ida B. Wells was a prolific journalist, anti-lynching activist, and women’s rights campaigner. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 2020 and she was honored in Washington DC’s Union station with a mosaic art installation for the U.S Suffragist Movement.
The New York Times reviewed Linda O. Mcmurry’s biography of the late Ida B. Wells. They said:
“Linda O. McMurry‘s important new biography, To Keep the Waters Troubled, tells the story of an extraordinary American who would have been at the very summit of our national pantheon except for two things: her sex and her race. But then again, being born into a society that promised individual freedom and personal power — just not to blacks, not to women and above all not to black women — was the source of Ida B. Wells’s remarkable story.”
Wells carved a name for herself as one of the most notable African-American female journalists to own and manage her own newspaper. She was a suffragist, a global speaker, and a respected leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She joined forces with W.E.B DuBois to launch the NAACP and she facilitated many women’s rights initiatives such as voting rights for women in Illinois and various other important campaigns.
Wells worked hard to fight against lynching and she utilized her talent as an influential speaker and investigative journalist to record and keep track of lynchings in the 1890s.
Ida Wells worked tirelessly to prove that lynchings were unjust and uncalled for. She campaigned to prove that lynchings were being used as a control mechanism to punish black people in an unjust and unfair way. Over the years, she was issued death threats, her newspaper offices were also burned down and she was forced to move from Memphis to Chicago. However, she pushed through the obstacles and continued to fight for change.
Wells’ work became so popular that she gained global support. The British provided financial support and they launched a British Anti-lynching committee to support her anti-lynching campaigns. The members of the British Anti-lynching committee included the Archbishop of Canterbury, members of parliament, and the editors of the Manchester Guardian Newspaper at the time.
Wells commenced her fight against lynching in 1889 when her friend Thomas Moss launched a People’s Grocery store on the outskirts of Memphis city limits. The store gained popularity and it became a competition for local white-owned stores.
In 1892, a gang of white men raided the store, three white men were shot, not killed.
Moss and two black men were arrested, the three men, including Moss, were murdered by a gang of white men while awaiting trial in jail.
Wells penned an editorial piece to encourage blacks to leave Memphis to find greener pastures. Her campaigns led to white-owned stores being boycotted and more than 5,000 African Americans left Memphis to live elsewhere.
At the time, blacks were being lynched for reasons such as unpaid debt, false accusations, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wells continued to campaign to abolish these despicable crimes against black people.
Wells was on a mission to disprove the claims that black men sexually abused white women as these accusations were often being used as a basis for lynchings. After publishing a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases, she also published an editorial piece that sought to prove that sexual contact between white women and black men was consensual and not forced.
Wells continued to speak all over the United States, her speeches in New York City reached audiences that included high-ranking African American women.
In October 1892, the Women’s Loyal Union of New York was launched. The group had the power to apply pressure for change and they had the authority to act politically, which was a major breakthrough at this time.
Wells campaigned across Europe and she held many talks in Great Britain where she would often accompany her speeches with images of white children smiling next to lynched black men. Wells struggled to raise enough money to fund her global campaign trips so she eventually reached out to the editor of Daily Inter-Ocean Newspaper, William Penn Nixon. Based in Chicago, the Daily Inter was the only white-owned newspaper that publically opposed lynching.
Nixon offered Wells a job as a correspondent which allowed her to travel, speak, write and campaign. Wells became the first African-American to work as a paid correspondent for a national white-owned newspaper.
Wells encouraged black people in the South to protest against lynching, she also inspired the formation of many anti-lynching groups in Europe, pressure groups that campaigned to stop the unfair treatment of blacks in the United States, in particular the South.
In 1895, Wells released The Red Record, an extensive pamphlet highlighting lynching in the United States. The pamphlet also described the hardships black people faced in the South since the Civil War.
In 1896, Wells launched the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the National Afro-American Council. She also played a significant role in urban development in Chicago in the early 20s.
Wells began writing her autobiography Crusade for Justice in 1928 however, she failed to complete the book before she died of Kidney failure on March 25, 1938, she was 68 years old.
Wells will forever be remembered as one of the first successful black female journalists. As well as a dedicated advocate of women’s rights. Her determination to eradicate the lynching of black men gave her worldwide recognition and her name is still remembered today.
The Ida B. Wells Museum in Holly Springs, Mississippi isa cultural center of African American history. Also, the National Association of Black Journalists, The Medill School of Journalism, and North Western University have all recognized Wells for her bravery and determination as a journalist by honoring her with awards in her name.
Wells continues to inspire and motivate black people to relentlessly fight for justice and equality in the United Starts and beyond.