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Ida B Wells

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Ida B Wells

To modern day eyes, lynching, or group murder, is obviously a crime. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the idea that lynch victims "deserved it" held sway amongst Americans, both black and white. The woman who challenged this myth and began the long campaign to end lynching was Ida B Wells.

Ida B Wells Timeline

Date

Event

1861

U.S. Civil War began.

1862

Ida B Wells was born enslaved on 16 July 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

1865

U.S. Civil War ended.

1884

Wells ejected from the first-class carriage on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad company train.

1891

Wells wrote a series of newspaper articles under the alias Lola Well. These articles looked at African-American education.

1892

Wells purchased part of The Free Speech newspaper and her investigative journalist career kicked off.

1892

Thomas Moss, a friend of Wells, was horrifically lynched by a white mob.

1892

Wells wrote an article in the The Free Speech that angered the Memphis white community and she was ran out of town.

1913

Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first black women’s suffrage group.

1928

Wells started writing her autobiography, Crusade for Justice.

1931

Ida B Wells died, leaving her autobiography unfinished.

1970

Her autobiography was published by her daughter, Alfreda Duster, 40 years after Wells' death.

Ida B Wells Early Years

Ida B Wells Portrait of Ida B Wells StudySmarterPhotograph of Ida B Wells. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ida B Wells was born in 1862 in Mississippi. She was born enslaved, during the American Civil War (1860-1865). The Civil War abolished slavery, freeing Wells and her family.


Wells grew up in an era that promoted some of the most virulent racism, such as Jim Crow laws in the American South. Between 1882 - 1950 some 3,000 African Americans were lynched.

Ida B Wells Education

When she was 14 years old, Wells attended her local school Rust College in Mississippi. She later moved to Tennessee to attend Fisk University, the same university WEB Du Bois attended.

In Memphis, Tennessee she found employment as a teacher. However, she was later fired after writing an article criticising the conditions of black schools in Memphis. Despite this punishment, Wells continued to speak out against the inequalities in schooling and resources.

Ida B Wells and the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad

In 1885, when Wells was 23, she sat in the first-class carriage of a train ride. Despite having bought the first-class ticket, the conductor insisted she move to the over-crowded African American section. Wells refused to move and even bit the conductor's hand when he tried to grab her. She was eventually overpowered and removed from the train.

Ida B Wells Map of Chesapeake Ohio Railway Image StudySmarterMap of Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Wells sued the railway company, Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, and was initially successful and received $500 in compensation. However, the Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned this verdict.

The Memphis Free Speech Ida B Wells

Wells became interested in journalism and wrote a series of newspaper articles which looked at African-American education. She used the alias Lola Well and was surprised at the positive reception she got. She moved out of teaching and became a part-owner of The Memphis Free Speech, an African American newspaper.

Ida B Wells and Civil Rights Movement

Ida B Wells is considered a pioneer of the civil rights movement. She was involved mostly in the anti-lynching, and women's suffrage activism.

Ida B Wells Anti-Lynching Activism

Ida B Wells played a pioneering role in the anti-lynching movement, using her investigative journalism to reveal the truth behind these crimes.

What was lynching?

Lynching was murder by a mob or a group of vigilantes. Though lynching was illegal, it was typically an overlooked practice in the American South. Sheriffs and police officers looked the other way when it came to lynching and sometimes were even part of the mob. Lynch victims were often hanged or burned.

Despite its illegality, lynching was often a public spectacle, with children and families travelling to watch. Pieces of the victim's hair or skin would be fought over for as mementos for the occasion.

In 2022, President Joe Biden signed the first federal anti-lynching legislation. This came after 200 failed attempts over to make lynching an illegal and defined crime in the United States.

In her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928) Wells described how even she initially believed the myth of black men raping white women, which was a common justification for lynching at the time. She writes that she vaguely believed that,

perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life."

- Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1928)1

So what changed for Wells to become a staunch anti-lynching activist? It was really the lynching of her close friend and African American community leader, Thomas Moss, that radicalised Wells against lynching.

Who was Thomas Moss?

Thomas Moss ran a successful co-operative grocery store in a black neighbourhood outside of Memphis. Moss was widely regarded within black Memphis as a community leader and family man.

A white rival grocer attacked Thomas Moss and his fellow businessmen. When they resisted, the grocer used it as a pretext to whip up a racial frenzy amongst the white community in Memphis. 75 men got together and lynched Moss and his colleagues. Their bodies were left to rot in the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad, a yard a mile outside of the town of Memphis, Tennessee.

Though Wells rightfully despised the men who had lynched her friend, she was even more outraged at local news coverage of the lynching. White-owned press justified the lynching as necessary and even went as far as to call Moss' horrific lynching an act of justice. Even worse, they painted out Moss to be a violent and criminal man. As Wells stated in her autobiography, the lynching of Thomas Moss:

opened my eyes to what lynching really was."

- Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1928)2

Wells realised that lynching was not because of black men's sexual violence or criminality. The white rival grocer's attempts to destroy Thomas Moss' business was revealing. Wells now understood that lynching was a means of terrorising and economically oppressing successful African Americans.

Ida B Wells The People's Grocery Memphis Image StudySmarterPhotograph of The People's Grocery, the black co-operative partly owned by Thomas Moss and located in a black neighbourhood on the outskirts of Memphis, 1890. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Wells used her journalism to counter the racist white press and put forward the truth about lynching. In The Memphis Free Speech she boldly wrote:

Nobody in this section believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

- Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1928)3

The white Memphis community was outraged. Wells' office was burnt down and death threats forced her to leave Memphis for good. Importantly, it was the local paper the Commercial Appeal that reproduced her article and whipped up the mob frenzy against Wells. Wells was not just fighting against lynchers; she was fighting against the press, who she saw as equally complicit in racial violence.

Ida B Wells Mob Rule in New Orleans

Wells spAnother pamphlet on lynching published by Wells in 1892. Public Domain. Source: Project Gutenberg. ent most of her life fighting against lynching and the fake news of the press. In 1895 she married and moved to Chicago. She continued to publish the truth about lynching through her investigative journalism.

In 1900 she published "Mob Rule in New Orleans," a pamphlet that explored the discrepancies in the press over the lynching of Robert Charles. Though the press described Charles as a violent criminal or "desperado," Wells interviewed those around Charles to see what actually happened. She found out how the incidents leading up to Robert Charles' lynching actually turned out. Charles was being harassed and beaten by white police officers when he defended himself with his gun.

In publishing this pamphlet, Wells helped to counter the racist myth of black violence and lawlessness. Her works were crucial in producing an alternative record to the white press. It is important to note that many of Wells works come in the form of pamphlets - she did not have the money or support to publish whole books.

Ida B Wells Women’s Suffrage Movement

The 1890s was a period of intense suffrage activity. Wells was an active part of the suffrage movement and was a personal friend of Susan B. Anthony, the famous American suffragist. In her autobiography, she wrote of Anthony:

Those were precious days in which I sat at the feet of this pioneer and veteran in the work of women’s suffrage."

- Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1928)4

But in other quarters Wells often faced racism from the suffragette movement. At the 1913 Chicago suffrage march, Wells was told to walk at the back of the protest so as to not offend the Southern white women present. In response, Wells pushed her way to the front of the march.

Ida B Wells Chicago Daily Tribune Newspaper Suffrage March 1913Image StudySmarterNewspaper clipping in the Chicago Daily Tribune, March 5 1913, showing Ida B Wells at the front of the suffrage march. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This alienation and racism from the suffrage movement led to Wells establishing the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first group fighting specifically for black women's suffrage.

Ida B Well Significance and Legacy

Ida B Wells is without a doubt one of America's most influential writers. She was the first to truly combat the black male rapist myth which was so prevalent throughout America and had served as a convenient justification for lynching. Even amongst African Americans, this myth was widely believed, as Wells herself acknowledged.

The value of her work was to counter the narratives of the Southern white presses. She painstakingly collected evidence and conducted interviews to right the record. Her investigative journalism was a testament to the power of social justice-oriented journalism.

Ida B Wells - Key Takeaways

  • Ida B Wells was born in 1862 into slavery.

  • Wells grew up in an area and era that was populated with Jim Crow laws and social norms, such as lynching.

  • Ida B Wells fought against the Chesapeake & Ohio train company for racial discrimination.

  • The lynching of her friend, Thomas Moss, was a turning point in her life. She fiercely resisted the myth that lynch victims "deserved it" and dedicated her life to fighting lynching.

  • She used journalism to spread the truth about lynching cases across the country and internationally.
  • Wells' significance was to spread awareness of lynch mobs in the American South through her detailed fact-finding journalism.

References

  1. Alfreda Duster, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1928, published in 1970), Chapter 8: At the Hands of the Mob.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, Chapter 27: Susan B. Anthony.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ida B Wells

Ida B Wells contributed immensely to the field of investigative journalism. Her most significant accomplishment was to reveal the truth behind lynching - that it was a racial act of violence rather than revenge for sexual crimes.

Wells furthered the cause of racial justice by highlighting a significant problem facing African Americans: lynching. 

Wells used investigative journalism to reveal the truth about lynching - that lynch victims were almost always innocent and that the act of lynching was not popular justice but racial violence. Wells travelled around the world to promote this cause, and delivered a number of speeches in the United States and also the United Kingdom. 

Wells is best known for her investigative journalism on lynching cases. Lynching was not studied or even acknowledged as a problem facing African Americans before Wells campaigns. 

Ida B Wells was a well-renowned African-American journalist and anti-lynching activist in the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century.

Final Ida B Wells Quiz

Question

What period was Ida B Wells born in?

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Answer

During slavery and the American Civil War



Show question

Question

Where did Ida B Wells grow up?

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Answer

Mississippi

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Question

In what year did she purchase the Memphis Free Post?


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Answer

1891

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Question

When did she co-found the NAACP?


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Answer

1909

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Question

What was the name of the African-American group she founded in 1896?


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Answer

National Association for Coloured Women

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Question

What was the name of the first black women’s suffrage group?


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Answer

 Chicago Alpha Suffrage Committee

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Question

When did Ida B Wells leave the NAACP and why?


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Answer

In 1912. Ida B Wells thought that the NAACP had lost its focus because there were too many white and black elites.

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Question

When did she meet President Taylor McKinley and Congress, and why?


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Answer

In 1898. She wanted to lobby for federal anti-lynching legislation.

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Question

What happened to Ida B Wells in 1892 and how did she respond?


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Answer

Three of her friends were lynched by a white mob after being accused of rape. This led her to write an article in the Memphis Free Post that angered the white people in her area and she was ran out of town.

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Question

Why did Ida B Well gain $500 dollars in compensation?


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Answer

The Chesapeake & Ohio train company racially discriminated against her when they tried to force her to go to an African-American coach, and this resulted in her refusing and being kicked off the train.

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