Saturday, April 15, 2017

1862, Ida B. Wells born in Mississippi

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an African American journalist, newspaper editor, & early leader in the civil rights movement, born in  early in the Civil War in1862.

 Ida B. Wells-Barnett, anti-lynching crusader, suffragist, women’s rights advocate, journalist, & speaker, was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, to James & Elizabeth "Lizzie" Bell (Warrenton) Wells, the daughter of a Native American father & slave mother.  She died in Chicago, Illinois 1931, at the age of 69.

After emancipation, Lizzie & James continued to work for their former owners as a cook & carpenter respectively. When Ida was only 14, a tragic epidemic of Yellow Fever swept through Holly Springs killing her parents & youngest sibling.

The oldest in a family of 4 boys & 4 girls, Ida acquired from her parents a love of self-sufficiency that characterized her life. She kept the family together by securing a job teaching by passing the Mississippi teachers' exam & teaching  briefly in Holly Springs.

 She managed to continue her education by attending near-by Rust College. She attended Shaw University (later Rust College) in Holly Springs, &, after her move to Memphis,Tennessee, she attended summer sessions at Nashville's Fisk University.

In the early 1880s, she moved to Memphis & taught in the rural schools of Shelby County while preparing for the teachers' exam for the Negro public schools of Memphis. She lived with her aunt who helped raise her youngest sisters.

It was in Memphis, where she first began to fight (literally) for racial & gender justice. In 1884, she was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man & ordered her into the smoking or “Jim Crow” car, which was already crowded with other passengers. Despite the 1875 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color, in theaters, hotels, transports, & other public accommodations, several railroad companies defied this congressional mandate & racially segregated its passengers. It is important to realize that her defiant act was before Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the fallacious doctrine of “separate but equal,” which constitutionalized racial segregation.

Wells wrote in her autobiography: "I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, & as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front & was holding to the back, & as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward & got the baggageman & another man to help him & of course they succeeded in dragging me out.

Wells was forcefully removed from the train & the other passengers–all whites–applauded. When Wells returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an attorney to sue the railroad. She won her case in the local circuit courts, but the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, & it reversed the lower court’s ruling. This was the first of many struggles Wells engaged, & from that moment forward, she worked tirelessly & fearlessly to overturn injustices against women & people of color.

Her suit against the railroad company also sparked her career as a journalist. Many papers wanted to hear about the experiences of the 25-year-old school teacher who stood up against white supremacy. Her writing career blossomed in papers geared to African American & Christian audiences.

 In 1889, Wells became a partner in the newspaper Free Speech & Headlight. The paper was also owned by Rev. R. Nightingale– the pastor of Beale Street Baptist Church. He “counseled” his large congregation to subscribe to the paper, & it flourished, allowing her to leave her position as an educator.

In 1892, three of her friends were lynched. Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, & Henry Stewart. These three men were owners of People’s Grocery Company, & their small grocery had taken away customers from competing white businesses. A group of angry white men thought they would “eliminate” the competition so they attacked People’s grocery, but the owners fought back, shooting one of the attackers. The owners of People’s Grocery were arrested, but a lynch-mob broke into the jail, dragged them away from town, & brutally murdered all three.

Again, this atrocity galvanized her mettle. She wrote in The Free Speech:
"The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered & without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left to do; save our money & leave a town which will neither protect our lives & property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out & murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons."

Many people took the advice Wells penned in her paper & left town; other members of the Black community organized a boycott of white owned business to try to stem the terror of lynchings. Her newspaper office was destroyed as a result of the muckraking & investigative journalism she pursued after the killing of her three friends.

She could not return to Memphis, so she moved to Chicago. She however continued her blistering journalistic attacks on Southern injustices, being especially active in investigating & exposing the fraudulent “reasons” given to lynch Black men, which by now had become a common occurrence.

In Chicago, she helped develop numerous African American women & reform organizations, but she remained diligent in her anti-lynching crusade, writing Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

She also became a tireless worker for women’s suffrage, & happened to march in the famous 1913 march for universal suffrage in Washington, D.C. Not able to tolerate injustice of any kind, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, along with Jane Addams, successfully blocked the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago.

Her crusade gaining momentum, Wells toured Great Britain in 1893 and 1894, speaking in packed churches & lecture halls. The "sweet-faced" orator spoke with "singular refinement, dignity and self-restraint," wrote a London observer. "Nor have I ever met any agitator so cautious and unimpassioned in speech. But by this marvelous self-restraint itself, she moved us all the more profoundly."

In 1895, Wells married the editor of one of Chicago’s early Black newspapers. In 1881, she accepted a better-paying teaching position in Woodstock, Tennessee, even as she dreamed of a more exciting career as a "journalist, physician or actress." She studied elocution and drama at Fisk University in Nashville-training that must have proved helpful when she later took to the lecture circuit.

She was 32 & already a noted journalist & activist, when she married.  Frederick Douglass had recruited Wells and Ferdinand Lee Barnett, a prosperous black attorney and publisher of The Conservator newspaper in Chicago, to help write a pamphlet protesting the exclusion of black participants from the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

Barnett, as militant as Wells, was once jailed for telling an audience that America was a "dirty rag" if it didn't protect all of its citizens. A widower with two sons, Barnett soon proposed to Wells, who eventually agreed to marry him. She persuaded Barnett, who was busy with his legal work, to sell The Conservator to her. Journalism, she later wrote in her autobiography, "was my first, and might be said, my only love." A few days after the wedding, Wells took charge of the newspaper.

Typically ahead of her time, the new bride adopted a hyphenated last name, Wells-Barnett. The couple had two daughters and two sons. For Wells, as for many career women, balancing work and family was a challenge. Her friend, suffrage leader (and spinster Susan B. Anthony, chided Wells that "since you have gotten married, agitation seems practically to have ceased."

She wrote: “I was married in the city of Chicago to Attorney F. L. Barnett, & retired to what I thought was the privacy of a home.” She did not stay retired long & continued writing & organizing. In 1906, she joined with William E.B. DuBois & others to further the Niagara Movement, & she was one of two African American women to sign “the call” to form the NAACP in 1909.

Although Ida B. Wells was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she was also among the few Black leaders to explicitly oppose Booker T. Washington & his strategies. As a result, she was viewed as one the most radical of the so-called “radicals” who organized the NAACP & marginalized from positions within its leadership.

As late as 1930, she became disgusted by the nominees of the major parties to the state legislature, so Wells-Barnett decided to run for the Illinois State legislature, which made her one of the first Black women to run for public office in the United States. A year later, she passed away after a lifetime crusading for justice.

(Sources: &