Celebrating the Life of Ida B. Wells

For Women’s History Month, we celebrate the life and legacy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, whose life’s work documenting the horrors of lynching of African Americans in the United States undoubtedly helped pave the way for the American Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. Wells was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) in 1909, and she became an ardent opponent of Jim Crow segregation in the American South from the earliest days of the implementation of the wicked separate but equal false doctrine.

Ida B. Wells BarnettBorn into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862, Ida B Wells lost both of her parents to a yellow fever epidemic in 1878. She kept her remaining 5 siblings together by working as an elementary school teacher and raising them herself before moving to Memphis, Tennessee in 1883. Wells was well ahead of her time with her views on women’s liberation, writing at age 24: “I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge.” She gained notoriety when she wrote a newspaper article about a May 4, 1884 incident on a railroad car where the conductor ordered Ida to give up her first-class seat and move to the smoking car because she was a Black woman. She refused and was forcibly dragged from the car by a group of men. She took the case to court and initially won a verdict in her favor, only for the decision to be reversed by a higher court.

In 1889 in Memphis, Tennessee, the People’s Grocery, a black-owned grocery store that soon became competition for a white-owned grocery store across the street, was opened. One evening a young black boy and a young white boy got into a scuffle in front of the People’s Grocery, and the fight was used a pretext for the local white community, with the assistance of the cops, to barbarously lynch 3 Black men. One of these men was a close friend of Ida B. Wells and owner of the grocery store, Thomas Moss. His final words before being lynched were recorded by Wells: “Tell my people to go west, there is no justice here.” This was the event that ignited Ida B. Wells’ great anti-lynching crusade. She set up a printing office in Memphis and used it to document and decry such brutal acts. After she uncovered the lie at the heart of a lynching in Tunica, Mississippi in 1892 – that a white father had falsely accused a Black man of raping his daughter to hide their consensual sexual relationship – Wells famously editorialized about “that old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women.” “If southern men are not careful,” she wrote, “a conclusion might be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” This editorial caused massive outrage and consternation throughout Memphis’s white community. Wells’ office was burned to the ground and, had she returned to Memphis, she too would have been lynched.

The horrifying face of white terrorism: the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930

Wells published her extensive research on the lynching of African Americans in a 1892 book titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In it she concluded that Southern whites used the false accusations of white women who cried rape to lynch Black men for another purpose: destroying and preventing Black economic progress. She followed this publication with another pamphlet 3 years later, The Red Record, a comprehensive history of lynching up to that point. In it she concluded that since the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the ‘abolition’ of slavery, “ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution.” She encouraged Black Americans to take up arms and defend their families and loved ones from white terrorism.

Further reading:

‘Lynching is color-line murder’: the blistering speech denouncing America’s shame

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