by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)
This is Ida B. Wells. Best known for being a late 19th/early 20th-century journalist, anti-lynching crusader and women’s rights advocate. In 2020, Wells received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for journalism, and her face honored the centennial of the U.S. Suffragist Movement in a mosaic art installation in Washington D.C.’s Union Station.
Wells is a helluva historical figure who still far too few people know about. Her whole life is fascinating, so I’ll try to keep it short and focussed on her work. If you don’t have time for it now, right below is a great quote summing up Wells’ importance in the fight for equality and justice from the New York Times review of the 1999 biography on Wells:
“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 was one of the first African-American female journalists to run her own newspaper, was an outspoken feminist, suffragist, an international figure and speaker, and early leader in the Civil Rights Movement who helped found the NAACP with W.E.B. DuBois and others, and helped women get and consolidate their power around voting in Illinois when they won the right.
But what fascinates me the most is her near one-woman crusade against lynching, and how she used her investigative, reporting, and oratory skills not only to document lynchings in the 1890s, but also to disprove the lie that Black men were raping white women or committing crimes that justified their mob hangings.
Wells offered real proof that lynching was being used in the South as a way to control or punish Black people who competed with whites. Even after the offices of her newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight, were burned down and she had to relocate from Memphis to Chicago to escape death threats, Wells persisted with her work.
Although there was major resistance in the U.S., Wells garnered support from the British, who after reading her work and hearing her speeches (they also witnessed her being dragged unfairly in the American press), offered monetary support and formed the British Anti-Lynching Committee, which included prominent members such as the Duke of Argyll, the Archbishop of Canterbury, members of Parliament, and the editors of The Manchester Guardian, who put international pressure on the U.S. to address these horrific crimes against Black Americans.
Wells’ crusade against lynching started in 1889, when her friend Thomas Moss opened the Peoples Grocery in the “Curve,” a Black neighborhood just outside Memphis city limits. It did well and competed with a white-owned grocery store across the street.
In 1892, while Wells was out of town, a white mob invaded her friends’ store. During the altercation, three white men were shot and injured. Moss and two other black men were arrested and jailed pending trial. A white lynch mob stormed the jail and killed the three men.
After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote an editorial and became an ersatz civil rights leader and firebrand, urging Blacks to leave Memphis altogether. More than 6,000 black people did leave Memphis; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. After being threatened with violence, Wells bought a pistol. She later wrote, “They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth.”
Wells began her investigation by looking at the charges given for her friends’ murders, which officially started her anti-lynching campaign. She spoke at various Black women’s clubs, and raised more than $500 to investigate lynchings and publish her findings. Wells found that Blacks were lynched primarily for social control reasons such as failing to pay debts, not appearing to give way to whites, competing with whites economically, or being drunk in public.
She found little basis for the frequent claim that Black men were lynched because they had sexually abused or attacked white women. This alibi seemed to have partly accounted for white America’s collective acceptance or silence on lynching, as well as its acceptance by many in the educated African-American community.
Wells published her findings in a pamphlet called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She followed it with an editorial that said, unlike the myth that white women were sexually at risk of attacks by Black men, most liaisons between Black men and white women were consensual.
Her editorial enraged white men in Memphis. On May 27, 1892, while she was away in Philadelphia, a white mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight.
To quote again from the 1999 New York Times Review:
“Wells exposed as false the most common justification for these lynchings: that they were necessitated by sexual ”outrages” committed by Black men against white women. Perhaps only a woman could have spoken out effectively against these charges, but doing so exposed Wells to attacks against her sexual character. Her willingness to talk openly about rape and interracial sex kept her from succeeding the aging Frederick Douglass as ”leader of the Afro-American race,” the most respected Negro in the United States among whites. This role went instead to a man and a nonmilitant, Booker T. Washington.”
In continued efforts to raise awareness and opposition to lynching, Wells spoke to groups in New York City, where her audiences included many leading African-American women.
On October 5, 1892, a testimonial dinner held at Lyric Hall, organized by political activists and clubwomen, Victoria Earle Matthews and Maritcha Remond Lyons, raised significant funds for Wells’ anti-lynching campaign. The Women’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn was formed to organize Black women as an interest group who could act politically.
Wells toured Europe in her campaign for justice, but the first tour in 1893 didn’t go so well. Wells went to Great Britain at the invitation of Catherine Impey, a British Quaker. An opponent of imperialism and proponent of racial equality, Impey wanted to ensure that the British public learned about the problem of lynching in the U.S.
Wells accompanied her speeches with a photograph of a white mob and grinning white children posing near a hanged Black man; her talks created a sensation, but some in the audiences remained doubtful of her accounts. Wells intended to raise money and expose the U.S. lynching violence, but received so little funds that she had difficulty covering her travel expenses.
Before her second visit to Britain in 1894, the enterprising Wells worked to get some backing. Wells called on William Penn Nixon, editor of Daily Inter-Ocean, a Republican newspaper in Chicago, the only major white paper that persistently denounced lynching.
After Wells told Nixon about her planned tour, he asked her to write for the newspaper while in England, making her the first African-American woman to be a paid correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper. This time, Wells was highly effective in speaking to European audiences, who were shocked to learn about the rate of violence against Black people in the U.S.
Wells called for the formation of groups to formally protest the lynchings and helped catalyze anti-lynching groups in Europe, which tried to press the U.S. government to guarantee the safety of Black people in the South.
When she spoke at home to Black crowds, Wells was a one-woman precursor to the 1950s Deacons of Defense or the 1960s Black Panthers or even Malcolm X: she recommended that Black people arm themselves to defend against lynching:
“The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honour in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.”
Wells subsequently published The Red Record (1895), a 100-page pamphlet describing lynching in the U.S. since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It also covered Black people’s struggles in the South since the Civil War. The Red Record explored the alarmingly high rates of lynching in the United States (which was at a peak from 1880 to 1930).
Wells gave 14 pages of statistics related to lynching cases committed from 1892 to 1895; she also included pages of graphic accounts detailing specific lynchings. She notes that her data was taken from articles by white correspondents, white press bureaus, and white newspapers.
The Red Record had far-reaching influence in the debate about lynching. Her accounts grabbed the attention of Northerners who knew little about lynching or accepted the common explanation that black men deserved this fate.
During this time, Wells also had to deal with dust-ups with white women suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard. Anthony was critical of Wells for getting “distracted” by her young son who she had to bring with her on occasion to speaking engagements.
Willard went out of her way to try to discredit Wells in the press after Wells called Willard out for being silent lynching and for making racist statements where she said Black people drank too much and threatened the safety of women. Wells clapped back at Willard in The Red Record with an entire chapter dedicated to discussing “Miss Willard’s Attitude.”
In 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the National Afro-American Council. In Chicago, Wells also worked to improve conditions for its rapidly growing African-American population due to the Great Migration to northern industrial cities.
Wells worked on urban reform in Chicago during the last thirty years of her life. Wells began writing her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, in 1928 but never finished it; she died of uremia (kidney failure) in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68.
In her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, the Ida B.Wells-Barnett Museum acts as a cultural center of African American history. Awards have been established in Wells’s name by the National Association of Black Journalists, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and the New York County Lawyers Assn., among others.
To learn more about Wells, consider reading her autobiography (which her youngest daughter worked for 40 years to get into print), Ida: A Sword Among Lions from 2009 by Paula J. Giddings, To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells by Linda O. McMurry from 2000 and To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay from 2010.
Also consider clicking on the Southern Horrors and Red Record links to download her original works via Project Gutenberg, reading this npr.org piece https://www.npr.org/…/ida-b-wells-lasting-impact-on… or watching below:
Credit: Source link