Monday, March 05, 2018

The Life of Ida B. Wells-Barnett

To begin with, Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16 1862. She was born a slave along with her parents. Her parents were James Wells and Elizabeth Wells. They were enslaved by Spires Bolling, who was an architect. They lived in the Bolling’s house. She was born months before the Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation, which banned slavery in Confederate held lands. After the Civil War, Ida B. Wells’ father became more overt in fighting for the justice for the black community. He was involved in politics and was a member of the Loyal League. He came into Shaw University in Holy Springs. The University is now called Rust College. He gave speeches and supported black candidates during Reconstruction. He never ran for office himself. Elizabeth Wells was a religious woman who helped her children a great deal. Both of Ida B. Wells’ parents were involved in Republican politics during Reconstruction, because back then tons of Republicans opposed racial injustice. Ida B. Wells attended Shaw University for a while. Tragedy struck in 1878. That was when her parents died because of a yellow fever epidemic in Holly Springs. Her infant brother named Stanley died too. Ida was just 16 years old when these sad events occurred. Ida and her siblings were orphaned. Many men were a father figure to her like Alfred Froman, Theodore W. Lott, and Josiah T. Settle. She lived with Settle in 1886 and 1887. Some relatives wanted Ida and her relatives to be split in foster care homes, but Ida B. Wells was adamantly opposed to this. Ida B. Wells went to the funerals of her parents and her brother. Later, she lived with her younger siblings as a family. She worked as a teacher in a black elementary school in Mississippi. Her siblings were cared for by friends and relatives while Wells was away teaching.  She received money to help her family. Peggy Wells or her paternal grandmother cared for her siblings too. Wells didn’t like earning only $30 a month as compared to $80 a month in segregated schools. She opposed discrimination and wanted to improve the education of black people. In 1883, Ida B. Wells moved into Memphis, Tennessee with her three younger siblings. They lived with their aunt and other family members. She taught there too. She was part of the Shelby County school system in Woodstock. During the summer, she attended summers sessions at Fisk University. Fisk University is a historically black college in Nashville. A historical black college in Memphis named Lemoyne-Owen College was another college that she attended too. Ida B. Wells believed in justice for black people and women’s rights.

The time of May 4, 1884 would change her life forever. That was the date when Ida B. Wells was in the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. A train conduct wanted her to give up her seat in the first class ladies car. He wanted to move her to the smoking car, which was crowded with other people. She refused to do so. The railroad authorities kicked her off the train. By 1883, the Supreme Court ruled against the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations). Racially segregated railroad companies segregated their passengers. Wells wrote of her experience in the black church weekly newspaper article found in The Living Way.  She hired an African American attorney to sue the railroad. That attorney was paid off by the railroad. So, she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884. The local circuit court granted her a $500 award. Then, the railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling in 1887. Wells was ordered to pay the costs. She was disappointed and said, “I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people...O God, is there no...justice in this land for us?" She continued to teach an elementary school class. During that time, she was offered an editorial position for the Evening Star in Washington, D.C. She also wrote for The Living Way weekly newspaper. It was done under her pen name “Iola.” She wrote about racial issues. She was the co-owner and editor of Free Speech and Headlight, which was an anti-segregation newspaper. It was started by Reverend Taylor Nightingale being based at the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis. She criticized racism and oppression. So, the Memphis Board of Education dismissed her. She was devastated. Yet, she moved on and used her energy to write articles for The Living Way, the Free Speech, and Headlight. Thomas Moss was Wells’ friend. In 1889, he opened a Peoples Grocery. It was found in the Curve. That was a black neighborhood just outside the Memphis limits. It did well. It also competed with a white owned grocery store across the street. By 1892, a white mob invaded his store. It was an altercation where three white men were shot and injured. Ida B. Wells was in Natchez, Mississippi when this occurred. Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were arrested and jail. A white lynch mob stormed the jail. They killed the three men. They were lynched. Ida B. Wells later called for all black people to leave Memphis because of the racist violence against black people. She wrote of these words in Free Speech and Headlight. She exposed lynching. More than 6,000 black people left Memphis. Other people boycotted white owned businesses. Ida B. Wells bought a pistol to protect herself. She later wrote, "They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth." She used investigative journalism to find out that lynching existed because of racism, jealousy of black progress, and a tactic by racists to harm the economics of the black community. She started her own anti-lynching campaign during the late 1800’s. She spoke in black women’s clubs and raised more than $500 to investigate lynchings and publish her results.

She found that white racists used the lie that every black person was raping white women as an excuse to lynch black people. She exposed American white masses of people being silent on this atrocity of lynching. She published her findings in a pamphlet entitled, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” She wrote an editorial and came into New England from Memphis. She covered another story for a newspaper. White people in the newspapers The Daily Commercial and the Evening Scimitar hated Ida B. Wells. More studies proved that Wells’ finding were right. They found that lynching was used as a way to harm and control the black community. Economics played a role in the sense that white racist jealous of black progress contributed to lynching. The scholar Oliver C. Cox defined lynching in his 1945 article entitled, “Lynching and the Status Quo.” Ida B. Wells continued to speak out against lynching in New York City and other places among African American women. Victoria Earle Matthews and Maritcha Remond Lyons (who were political activists and clubwomen) raised funds for Wells’ anti-lynching campaign. These women were at the October 5, 1892 testimonial of Wells at Lyric Hall. Black women organized political activism in the Women’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn. Ida B. Wells left Memphis and came into Chicago because her life was threatened. She wrote against lynching and wrote articles against it too. The New York Age newspaper published her articles. She investigated lynching incidents and the causes. She allied with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders to boycott the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The reason was that it lacked powerful images of African American life and refused to work with the black community. Articles about this reality were written by Wells, Douglass, Irvin Garland Penn, and Ferdinand Lee Barnett (or Ida B. Wells’ husband) in a pamphlet. It was entitled, “Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition." The pamphlet was distributed at the exposition too. The pamphlet showed the contributions of African Americans and exposed the evils of Southern lynchings. Wells told Albion W. Tourgee that 20,000 people received copies of the pamphlet at the fair.  Ida B. Wells stayed in Chicago. She worked with the oldest African American newspaper in the city called the Chicago Conservator. Wells by 1893 thought about suing two black Memphis attorneys for libel. She lacked money and Tourgee couldn’t afford to help. Ferdinand Barnett accepted the pro bono job to do it. 

Ida B. Wells had many children in four. She married attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett in 1895. She kept a diary too. He had 2 children from a previous marriage as he was a widower. His sons are Ferdinand and Albert. They had four children together. Their names are Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda. She traveled the world and took care of her children too. She toured Europe to fight lynching. Many English people supported her cause. She toured Europe in 1893 and in 1894. Catherine Impey supported her. Impey was a British Quaker, an opponent of imperialism, and believer in racial equality. Thousands of people came to see her. Many Europeans were shocked at the brutality against black people via lynching in America. Ida B. Wells showed crowds of an image of black people being lynched. She raised money. By 1894, she toured Great Britain. William Penn Nixon was the editor of the Daily Inter-Ocean. That was a Republican newspaper in Chicago. It was the only major white paper that persistently denounced lynching. After she told Nixon about her planned tour, he asked her to write for the newspaper while in England. She was the first African-American woman to be a paid correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper (TourgĂ©e had been writing a column for the same paper). Her article "In Pembroke Chapel" recounted the mental journey that an English minister had shared with her. The London Anti-Lynching Committee was created by Ida B. Wells to spread anti-lynching movements in Europe. C. F. Aked from England read about the Miller lynching in Bardwell, KY and supported Wells. Many white feminists aback then were racist. Willard was a white feminist who had black friends, but she made racist comments blaming black people for the defeat of the temperance legislation (that banned people from drinking alcohol). She was a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union or the WCTU. Frances Willard was president of the group from 1879 to 1898. Ida B. Wells accused Willard of downplaying lynching and allowed Southern branches of the WCTU to segregate and prevent black women from joining. Wells was right. Wells stood her ground despite being slandered by some in the New York Times. Her 1895 pamphlet A Red Record outlined her differences with Willard. Wells' British tour ultimately led to the formation of 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. Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horrors pamphlet documented lynching.

The South in Mississippi, and other states banned black people form voting via literacy test, poll taxes, etc. Many poor white people were restricted to vote too, but black people experienced Jim Crow in a harsh fashion. Ida B. Wells-Barnett also wanted black people to use arms to defend themselves against lynching. Self defense is a human right. Self preservation is a human right too. Wells-Barnett published The Red Record (1895), a 100-page pamphlet describing lynching in the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It also covered black peoples' struggles in the South since the Civil War.  Lynching was huge from 1880 to 1930 (and afterwards). Frederick Douglas wrote about lynching during the days of slavery, the Reconstruction Era, and afterwards too. Lynching was done to promote white supremacy, but black people rose up to fight against such evils. W.E.B. Bu Bois worked with Ida B. Wells. Each helped to found the NAACP. Du Bois said that Wells chose not to be included from the original list of founders of the NAACP while Wells said that Du Bois deliberately excluded her from the list. She formed a Republican Women’s Club in Illinois to fight for women to have the right to vote and hold office. The club supported Lucy L. Flower and Flower was elected as Trustee of the University of Illinois. Frederick Douglass praised her work. He said, “You have done your people and mine a service...What a revelation of existing conditions your writing has been for me.” In 1896, she founded the National Association of Colored Women’s clubs and the National Afro-American Council. She worked during the time of Mary Church Terrell’s activism too. Wells wanted to improve the lives of black people in Chicago. The Great Migration started and black people competed for jobs and resources alongside immigrant Europeans. Ida B. Wells worked in urban reform in Chicago during the last 30 years of her life. She wrote her autobiography during her retirement. It is entitled, “Crusade for Justice’ in 1928. She never finished her book. She passed away of kidney failure on March 25, 1931. She was 68 years old. She was buried in the Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. The city later integrated the cemetery. She has been honored by many people among many organizations from the National Association of Black Journalists to the Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation. The Ida B. Wells Museum has been established to protect, preserve and promote Wells’ legacy. There is the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum that celebrate her and African American history in her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Ida B. Wells Barnett was a legend.

By Timothy

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