The O.G. Files ‘Black History Month’ Edition: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Welcome the Evolving Man Project’s “Black History Month” edition of the O. G. profiles. The O.G. profiles will highlight women from diverse backgrounds and how they embody the values of what it means to be an evolved person. While uplifting their contributions to making a fairer and more just society. Today we will profile Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Ida. B. Wells was a teacher, journalist, civil rights pioneer, and suffragist. Ida B. Wells was born an enslaved person in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862; Wells was the oldest daughter of James and Lizzie Wells. The Wells family and the rest of the Confederate states’ enslaved people were decreed free by the Union thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation about six months after Ida’s birth.

Wells’ parents were active in the Republican Party during Reconstruction. Her father, James, was involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society and helped start Shaw University, a school for the newly freed enslaved people (now Rust College), and served on the first board of trustees.

It was at Shaw University that Wells received her early schooling. However, at the age of 16, she had to drop out when tragedy struck her family. Both of her parents and one of her siblings died in a yellow fever outbreak, leaving Wells to care for her other siblings. Ever resourceful, she convinced a nearby country school administrator that she was 18 and landed a job as a teacher. In 1882, Wells moved with her sisters to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with an aunt. Her brothers found work as carpenter apprentices. For a time, Wells continued her education at Fisk University in Nashville.

At 21, Wells clashed with a white train conductor who ordered her to move from the ladies’ car to the section designated for black passengers, despite having bought a first-class ticket. When she refused, and the conductor tried to forcibly move her, Wells “fastened her teeth on the back of his hand,” as she wrote later.

After being ejected from the train and won the case (a newspaper headline declared “Darky damsel gets damages”), Wells sued after being ejected, though the decision was later reversed in court.

By the time Wells turned 25, she was the co-owner and editor of the Free Speech and Headlight, a local black newspaper, a platform she used to skewer racial inequality. Wells wrote editorials in black newspapers that challenged Jim Crow laws in the South. Then came the People’s Grocery Lynching. She denounced it in print, armed herself with a pistol, and spent months traveling alone in the south, researching more than 700 lynchings from the previous decade.

Some 4,075 African Americans were lynched in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative’s 2015 report, Lynching in America. Some were witnessed by big crowds who brought children and picnic baskets, as if at a public entertainment.

Her expose about an 1892 lynching enraged locals, who burned her press and drove her from Memphis. After a few months, the threats became so bad she was forced to move to Chicago, Illinois.

In 1893, Wells-Barnett joined other African American leaders in calling for the boycott of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The boycotters accused the exposition committee of locking out African Americans and negatively portraying the black community. In 1895, Wells-Barnett married famed African American lawyer Ferdinand Barnett. Together, the couple had four children. Throughout her career Wells-Barnett, balanced motherhood with her activism.

In 1893, Wells published A Red Record, a personal examination of lynchings in America. 

That year, Wells lectured abroad to drum up support for her cause among reform-minded white people. Upset by the ban on African American exhibitors at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, she penned and circulated a pamphlet entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” Wells’ effort was funded and supported by famed abolitionists and freed enslaved people Frederick Douglass and lawyer and editor Ferdinand Barnett. 

In 1898, Wells brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House, leading a protest in Washington, D.C., and calling for President William McKinley to make reforms.

In 1909, she was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), although she was later ousted because she was perceived as too “radical.” She also worked with Susan B Anthony as a leader in the movement for women’s suffrage.

When Wells died in 1931 at the age of 68 from a brief illness due to kidney failure, her influence was waning, her autobiography was unfinished, and her ambition of a federal anti-lynching law was unrealized. Mrs. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was far ahead of her time and was a true fighter for justice. She risked life and limb in the post-reconstruction South and throughout the world to shed light on black Americans’ struggle in the United States at the turn of the 19th Century. Here is Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her own words.

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Ida B. Wells

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