|Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society|
Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.
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by Jennifer McBride
Ida B. Wells has been described as a crusader for justice, and as a defender of democracy. Wells was characterized as a militant and uncompromising leader for her efforts to abolish lynching and establish racial equality. Wells challenged segregation decades before Rosa Parks, ran for Congress and attended suffrage meetings with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams, yet most of her efforts are largely unknown due to the fact that she is African American and female.
Ida B. Wells was born July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, during the second year of the Civil War (Sterling 61). Her parents, James and Elizabeth Wells, were slaves, and thus Wells, a woman who devoted her life to promoting racial equality, was born a slave. It was from her parents that Wells developed an interest in politics and her unwavering dedication to achieving set goals. After emancipation, Jim Wells became heavily involved in politics. He was a member of the Loyal League (a local black political organization), he attended public "speakings" on the steps of the courthouse, and campaigned for local black political candidates (Sterling 65). Jim Wells' fervent interest in racial justice and political activism no doubt inspired his daughter's later interest in these same issues. Elizabeth Wells was a religious woman and a strict disciplinarian who dictated a strong work ethic. Both Jim and Elizabeth Wells emphasized the importance of education. After the Civil War, 90% of blacks were illiterate. Emancipation brought about the legalization of Negro education, and shortly thereafter, Negro schools were established throughout the south. Shaw University was established in Holly Springs in 1866 to provide education for the large, rural black community of the area (Duster 9). Wells along with her siblings and her mother (who wanted to learn to read the bible) attended Shaw University. She notes in her autobiography that "our job was to go to school and learn all we could" (Duster 9). During her years at Shaw, Wells developed an intense love of words. She reportedly read every book in the school library, from the novels of Louisa May Alcott and Charles Dickens to the Oliver Optic stores, a series of popular books for boys (Sterling 65). Early on in her education, Wells discovered a bias. At Shaw she learned mainly European history, and Wells notes in her autobiography that "I had read the bible and Shakespeare through, but I had never read a Negro book or anything about Negroes" (Duster 22).
In 1878, Wells' life changed forever, as a yellow fever epidemic swept through the region, claiming the lives of both her parents and a younger sibling (Sterling 66). Wells was visiting her grandmother's farm when the epidemic hit, and she was urged to remain in the country until the epidemic subsided. However, her devotion to her family prompted her to return home despite the warnings of doctors. In her autobiography Wells recalls her feelings at the time of the tragedy, "the conviction grew within me that I ought to be with them... I am going home. I am the oldest of seven living children. There's nobody but me to look after them now" (Duster 12). Determined to keep the family together, Wells refused all attempts at splitting up her remaining siblings. Instead, she insisted on caring for her five siblings, despite the fact that she was 16, unemployed and poor. At the urging of the local Masonic lodge where her father was a member, she applied for a teaching position in the country. She adjusted her appearance so as to look older than her mere 16 years. She passed the qualifying examine and was given a position six miles away. Friends and relatives stayed with the Wells children during the week when Ida was away at school. In her autobiography, Wells describes the burden of her dual role and caretaker and provider, "I came home every Friday afternoon, riding the six miles on the back of a big mule. I spent Saturday and Sunday washing and ironing and cooking for the children and went back to my country school on Sunday afternoon" (Duster 17).
In 1883, Wells moved 40 miles north to Memphis at the urging of her aunt Fannie, who promised ample opportunity for employment and offered to care for Wells' two younger sisters (Duster xvi). Wells accepted the offer, and shortly after her arrival in Memphis, she found employment at a school in Woodstock, Tennessee, about 10 miles outside the city. During her summer vacations, Wells took teachers' training courses at Fisk University and at Lemoyne Institute. By the fall of 1884 she had qualified to teach in the city schools and was assigned a first grade class where she taught for seven years(Sterling 67).
Wells' career as a writer was sparked by an incident that occurred on May 4, 1884. On this day, while riding a train back to her job in Woodstock, Wells was asked by the conductor to move from her seat in the ladies' car to the front of the train into the smoking car. When she refused, the conductor attempted to physically remove her from her seat. It took three men to remove Wells from her seat, and rather than move to the smoking car, she got off at the next stop to the cheers of the white passengers on the train (Duster 18). When Wells got back to Memphis, she immediately hired a lawyer to bring suit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. The court returned a verdict in favor of Wells and awarded her $500 in damages. The judge presiding over the trial stated the railroad company violated the separate but equal clause by forcing blacks to ride in smoking car that was separate but not first class, as Wells had paid for. The railroad appealed the verdict and in 1887, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court, and Wells was ordered to pay court costs. The was the first case of its kind in the south and it generated tremendous public interest. Thrilled with her victory and eager to share her story, Wells wrote an article for The Living Way, a black church weekly. Her article was so well received that the editor of The Living Way asked for additional contributions. As a result, Wells began a weekly column entitled "Iola." Wells described her purpose in writing Iola as "I had an instinctive feeling that the people who have little or no school training should have something coming into their homes weekly which dealt with their problems in a simple, helpful way... so I wrote in a plain, common-sense way on the things that concerned our people (Duster 23-24). By 1886, Wells' articles were appearing in prominent black newspapers across the nation. As she traveled through Tennessee and witnessed the deplorable living conditions of blacks, her voice grew bolder and she began to attacking larger issues of discrimination and inequality, such as poverty and lack of educational opportunities. In 1889 Wells was offered an editorship of a small Memphis newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight and became part-owner (Sterling 75). Wells' flaming editorials condemned white establishments for their continual oppression of blacks. In 1891 she was fired from her teaching position because of her editorials criticizing the Memphis School Board of Education for conditions in "separate" colored schools (Duster 37).
During the late 1800's, violence against blacks increased at alarming rates and mob rule was becoming the norm. The KKK established a "reign of terror," murdering and lynching innocent blacks, while most southern whites looked the other way. In 1892, Ida B. Wells was again faced with tragedy in what became known as the "Lynching at the Curve." In March 1892, three close friends of Wells, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, opened the People's Grocery Company. The store was located directly across the street from a white-owned grocery store, which had hitherto maintained a monopoly on, what Wells described as, "the trade of this thickly populated colored suburb" (Duster 48). Angered over the loss of business, a white mob gathered to run the black grocers out of town. Warned about the encroaching mob, the black men armed themselves, and in the ensuing confrontation, wounded three white men who had invaded the store. The next day, white newspapers printed exaggerated accounts of the previous day's events, claiming that "Negro desperadoes" had shot white men (Sterling 78). These sensationalized depiction's gave rise to another mob that stormed the jail cells of the three black men and killed them. Wells responded to this atrocious act of violence by writing an editorial in the Free Speech urging blacks to leave Memphis. She wrote "There is therefore 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." In two month's time, six thousand black people left Memphis, many relocating to the Oklahoma Territory. Those who remained, including Wells, organized boycotts of white owned businesses in response to the lynchings (Sterling 80). The Lynching at the Curve marked the beginning of Wells' anti-lynching campaign. She continued to write scathing editorials against lynching, gave public speakings on the subject and began to organize and mobilize blacks in an effort to abolish the practice. Wells also began a comprehensive study of lynching. In 1892 Wells spoke at a conference of black women's clubs, where she was given $500 to investigate lynching and publish her findings. Wells began investigating the fraudulent charges given as reasons to lynch black men. She found that many blacks were hung, shot and burned to death for trivial things such as not paying a debt, disrespecting whites, testifying in court, stealing hogs, and public drunkenness. Her findings were published in a pamphlet entitled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In particular, Wells found that one third of the charges against black men were for the rape of white women. The violence was thus "justified" in that it was protecting "white womanhood." Wells found that in many of these "rape" cases there was evidence of a consensual relationship between black men and white women. Wells' implications caused outrage among the white community. A mob destroyed the office of her newspaper and threatened to kill her. Wells was speaking in Philadelphia at the time of the mob. Unable to return to her home, she re-settled in Chicago and continued her anti-lynching campaign. The New York Age began printing her articles after the demise of The Free Speech, and Wells launched a lecturing tour throughout the northeast to further spread her message on the horrors of lynching.
In 1893, Wells took her anti-lynching campaign overseas. For two months Wells toured England, Scotland and Wales, giving speeches and meeting with leaders. Wells was impressed by the progressive activities and civic groups of British women. She wrote to her readers back home urging them to become more active in the affairs of their community, city and nation through organized civic clubs. While In England, Wells established the London Anti-Lynching Committee. Back home in the US, she continued her organizing efforts by establishing the first Negro women's civic clubs in Chicago and Boston, and was influential in the formation of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. Also during this period, Wells was also becoming more active in the suffrage movement. She became a familiar face at various suffrage meetings around the country, befriending both Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams.
Later that year, Wells collaborated with Frederick Douglass and others, including her future husband, in writing a pamphlet entitled "Reasons Why the Colored American is not in the World's Colombian Exposition" which documented the progress of blacks since their arrival in America. The pamphlet was in response to the exclusion of blacks in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and was distributed to over 20,000 people (Sterling 93).
In 1894, Wells embarked on another speaking tour through England. On her return, she published A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1894. This 100 page book expanded on her earlier research and documented the history of lynching since the Emancipation Proclamation. In order not to be accused of exaggeration, Wells took her information from a white source. She tabulated the number of lynchings reported in the Chicago Tribunal and tallied the various charges given. Her findings documented the alarming high occurrence of lynchings and the rather ridiculous charges filed against black men. For example, she found that in 1894 "197 persons were put to death by mobs who gave the victims no opportunity to make a lawful defense" (Duster xxii). Furthermore, she found that over two-thirds of lynchings were for incredibly petty crimes such as stealing hogs and quarreling with neighbors.
In 1895, at the age of 33, Wells married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a Chicago lawyer, activist and editor. Barnett was the owner and founder of the first black newspaper in Chicago, the Conservator. After their marriages, Wells bought the Conservator from Barnett and took over the duties of editor. Wells gave nightly addresses up until a week to the day she was married (Duster 241). Her marriage caused quite a stir in the Chicago area and abroad. Many were concerned she would abandon her cause and resign herself to the home and children. Wells gave birth to her first child in 1896. Throughout her son's infancy, she continued to travel, write and encourage women to organize. The following year she gave birth to another son, and as she states in her autobiography, "all this public work was given up and I retired to the privacy of my home to give my attention to the training of my children" (Duster 250). Wells had two more children, both girls, born 1901 and 1904.
On her return to public life, Wells continued her organizing efforts. In 1910 she formed the Negro Fellowship League. The NFL was housed in a three-story building on Chicago's south side. It served as a fellowship house for new settlers from the south. The NFL also provided a space for religious services, an employment office, and served as a homeless shelter for men.
The remaining years of Ida B. Wells' career were filled with more writing, activism and organizing. In 1909 she became one of the founders of the NAACP. In 1913 Wells established the first black women's suffrage club, called the Alpha Suffrage Club. That same year she marched in a suffrage parade in Washington DC and met with president McKinley about a lynching in South Carolina. The years following World War I she covered various race riots in Arkansas, East St. Louis and Chicago and published her reports in pamphlets and in the Conservator and newspapers nationwide. In 1928 Wells began her autobiography, stating that "the history of this entire period which reflected glory on the race should be known. Yet most of it is buried I oblivion... and so, because our youth are entitled to the facts of race history which only the participants can give, I am thus led to set forth the facts" (Duster 5). In 1930, her impatience with politicians and her growing concern for Chicago's black ghetto led Wells to run for the Illinois state senate, which she lost to the incumbent.
Ida B. Wells died March 25, 1931. She left behind a legacy of activism, dedication and hope for change. Wells' accomplishments are truly extraordinary given the time and social context in which they occurred. Wells traveled throughout the United States and Europe with her anti-lynching message, she wrote extensively throughout her life on the injustices faced by blacks, and she engaged in a never-ending effort to organize women and blacks. Toward the end of her life she became an ardent community activist, determined to change the path of poverty and crime in Chicago's inner city. Wells work as a writer, social researcher, activist, and organizer, mark her as one of this century's most dynamic and remarkable women.
Sterling, D. (1988). Black Foremothers. New York: The Feminist Press.