Women You Missed in History Class: Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

71 years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus, Ida B. Wells bit one of a group of men who forcibly removed her from an all-white train car.  This experience inspired her to become a journalist and activist, but even before her train incident, Wells didn’t let anyone push her around.  Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, just a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in southern states.  Her father was an early civil rights activist, and young Ida was eager to follow in his footsteps.  When Ida was 16, she lost her mother, father, and youngest brother to a yellow fever epidemic in Holly Springs.  Relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children should be split up among various foster homes, but Ida resisted this decision.  She got a job as a teacher in the local school so she and her five younger siblings could stay together.  The pay was enough to support the family, but she resented the fact that black teachers were paid less than half as much as white teachers.

In 1883, Wells moved the family to Memphis, where she started out as a schoolteacher, but eventually became the editor and co-owner of the Memphis black newspaper The Free Speech and Headlight.  As an investigative journalist, she exposed the lynching of black men in the South.  She traveled through the South collecting stories of black men who had been lynched, and found that most lynching victims were not guilty of any crime, but were murdered for reasons like competing economically against whites.  Wells published her findings in a pamphlet called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” which basically started the anti-lynching movement.  Shortly after she published her pamphlet, a white mob broke into her newspaper office and burned it to the ground.  Wells was away on business at the time, and was told that she would be killed if she ever returned to Memphis.  In spite of the danger and death threats, Wells continued her investigative reporting.

In addition to her anti-lynching work, Wells was also a suffragist, feminist, and Civil Rights activist.  She established several equal rights organizations for both women and African Americans, including the first black women’s suffrage organization, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago.  In 1896, she sounded the National Association of Colored Women, and in 1909, she became one of the founding members of the NAACP.  She wasn’t afraid to call out women’s rights activists for leaving out the needs of black people or civil rights activists for leaving out the needs of women.  Long before anyone even uttered the word “intersectionality,” Ida B. Wells was working to show that sexism and racial discrimination are connected.  When she died in 1931 at the age of 68, she left behind a legacy of black feminist activism and bravery in the face of danger.  As a woman and an African American, the stakes were high and the risk enormous for Ida B. Wells, but nevertheless, she persisted.


One thought on “Women You Missed in History Class: Ida B. Wells

  1. Love this! Ida is such an incredible woman (though it pains me to know I only discovered her in the last year) Incredibly brave and intelligent – nevertheless she persisted –

    (also, such a real written blog-will now be obsessively following)

    Liked by 1 person

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