She was born in slavery, but she would not be chained.
Long after the Civil War ended, Ida B. Wells continued to fight for freedom. She battled segregation, wrote groundbreaking exposés, and marched for women’s suffrage.
Wells set out to change the law and ended up inspiring a nation.
Her descendants have long cherished her memory. Now her great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, pays tribute in “Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells.”
The woman who grew up to be someone federal agents called “one of the most dangerous Negro agitators” was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862. She grew up in a family of 10. After the war, her father opened his own carpentry business. The family thrived.
Then, in 1878, an epidemic of yellow fever swept through the region. It took both of Wells’ parents and her youngest brother. She was now not only orphaned, but the sole support of seven. She was 16.
Wells put on a long dress and pulled her hair up into a bun to make herself look older. Then she went out and secured a job as a teacher. After all, she now had a family to take care of.
A few years later, Wells took on an extra job, too: fighting for equal rights.
By 1883, she and two sisters had moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Wells taught grade school in neighboring Woodstock. She regularly took the train to work, and she regularly refused to sit in the car set aside for Blacks.
The first time the conductor told her to move, she refused. When he grabbed her, she bit his hand. It took three men to finally throw her off.
The second time it happened, Wells sued.
The railroad bought off her first lawyer. But Wells found another who took her case — and won. The circuit court judge awarded her an astonishing $500 in damages. But before she collected a penny, the state Supreme Court reversed the decision.
“Oh God, is there no redress, no peace, no justice in this land for us?” she wrote in her diary after. “Come to my aid at this moment & teach me what to do, for I am sorely disappointed. Show us the way, even as Thou led the children of Israel out of bondage.”
The more Wells mulled over the inequities and how to battle them, the more she felt that way might be through journalism.
She began writing articles for her local literary club. Soon, her column in the Living Way ran weekly under the pen name “Iola.” Wells’ pieces about race relations, politics, and feminism were eventually picked up by other newspapers, including the influential, Black-owned New York Freeman.
“If Iola were a man,” its editor declared, “she would be a humming independent in politics. She has plenty of nerve and is as sharp as a steel trap.”
Wells’ determination to speak her mind cost her one career. Furious that her articles exposed racism in the school system, the Memphis Board of Education dismissed her in 1891. That gave her more time to dedicate herself to her true calling — crusading journalist.
Her first great cause came in 1892, with the People’s Grocery killings. The small, Black-owned business just outside Memphis had become a success, even attracting business away from a nearby white merchant. Tensions rose steadily.
Finally, the white man called in a false report that the competing store was a criminals’ hideout. The sheriff sent armed, hastily deputized citizens to investigate. When they stormed the store that night, without identifying themselves, the three terrified Black store owners fired, wounding several in the confusion.
Unsurprisingly, the Black men were held responsible. They were seized, tortured, and lynched. Their bodies were dumped in a field.
“This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was,” Wells said later. “An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property, and thus keep the race terrorized.”
She began the great work of her life: Exposing the white terrorism that much of the country still tried to pass off as justice. Her first pamphlet, published in 1892, was “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all Its Phases.” Although she was already receiving death threats, the cover bore a big, bold portrait of the author, along with her name.
A book, “A Red Record,” followed in 1895, detailing years of lynchings. To head off any claims of misrepresentation, Wells pointed out every horrific fact in it had already been published in white newspapers. Hoping to bring international pressure to bear, she gave speeches across Great Britain for two months.
She had already won respect in America. “Let me give you thanks for your faithful paper on the lynch abomination,” Frederick Douglass wrote her after “Southern Horrors.” “Brave woman! You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured.”
Wells married Black attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett in 1895. They eventually settled in Chicago, joined their careers as authors and activists, and had four children.
And she broadened her work. An early proponent of women’s suffrage, Wells refused to let the movement’s white feminists push her aside. When she represented her all-Black group, the Alpha Suffrage Club, at a national protest in Washington in 1913, she was told to march at the very back of the parade so as not to offend any Southern ladies. Wells nodded.
And then, when the march began, she proved again why she was a leader and took her place with the rest of the Illinois delegation.
Her stubbornness was an inspiration to many but worrisome to a few. Although Wells had several pioneering successes — setting up kindergartens for Black children, doing social work among parolees — she also angered the powerful. The New York Times called her “slanderous and nasty-nasty-minded.” White politicians shunned her.
In 1917, she took up the cause of Black soldiers executed for rioting in Houston’s streets. Federal agents visited and warned she could be charged with treason.
If this were treason, Wells answered, quoting the patriot Patrick Henry, then her enemies should “make the most of it.”
“I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I have said,” she declared. “I would consider it an honor to spend whatever years are necessary in prison as the one member of the race who protested, rather than be with all the 11,999,999 Negroes who didn’t.”
Federal agents opened a file on her.
And she kept speaking out until her death in 1931, at age 68.
There were low points; times she lost faith, times she doubted herself — if never the causes she fought so fiercely for. At one point, toward the end of her life, she confessed, “All at once the realization came to me that I had nothing to show for all those years of toil and labor.”
But still, she pressed on. Looking back over her struggles, she declared, “If it had to be done over again … I would do and say the very same.”