Ida B. Wells, Anti-Lynching Crusader and Mother of Intersectionality

In Depth

Ida B. Wells-Barnett—journalist, suffragist and anti-lynching activist—is Thursday’s Google doodle, in honor of her 153rd birthday. An often unsung American icon, Wells was an outspoken woman who fought with the national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Frances E. Willard, about intersectionality before the word was even invented.

Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, Wells was the eldest of eight children. Her parents were active in the Republican party during Reconstruction and the board of Rust College, but died of yellow fever when Ida was just 16. Instead of allowing her siblings to be split up between her parents’ friends, Ida became a country teacher to support herself and her five remaining siblings.

Later, when her siblings were older, the Wells family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Ida attended Fisk University and worked as a teacher. During her stay, she got into an altercation with a train conductor. Wells had purchased a first class ticket which was not in the Jim Crow segregated section and the train’s conductor tried to forcibly remove her from her seat. Ida wasn’t having that and “fastened her teeth on the back of his band,” according to PBS. Wells was kicked off the train that day but she sued and won $500, though her victory was ultimately overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In Memphis, Wells co-owned and edited the black newspaper called The Free Speech and Headlight, where she wrote about “violence against blacks, condemned violence against blacks, disfranchisement, poor schools, and the failure of black people to fight for their rights.” When she was fired from her teaching post for her incendiary ideas suggesting that blacks were humans that deserved rights, she became a full-time journalist.

In 1892, a black store owner named Tom Moss, along with Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart, were arrested for protecting Moss’ store from racist attacks and then dragged from their cells and lynched by a white mob. Wells was vocal about the racial violence and terror in her paper and told her fellow black residents to move out of Memphis. She traveled the South gathering stories of other blacks who’d been lynched, essentially kicking off the anti-lynching movement, according to Biography. One day, while she was away traveling, an angry white mob destroyed her newspaper office and declared that she’d “be killed if she ever returned to Memphis.”

Wells moved on to Chicago, where she wrote an investigative piece on lynching in America for the black newspaper called the New York Age, run by a former slave T. Thomas Fortune and lectured nationally. She partnered with freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a lawyer and editor named Ferdinand Barnett to call out the ban of black exhibitors during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, when she wrote and distributed a pamphlet called “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Represented in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” Later that year, she released A Red Record, her own examination of America’s lynching epidemic.

On the women’s rights side, Wells worked with the National Equal Rights League to stop “discriminatory hiring practices for government jobs” and earn women the right to vote. But she and her contemporaries Frances E. Willard, national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and Susan B. Anthony, a leader in the suffrage movement along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, fell out around the passage of the 15th amendment, which gave black men the right to vote—in theory, because of course thanks to all of the voter discrimination and outright murders of blacks to keep them from the polls, African Americans couldn’t vote freely until the 1960s—and not women. Resentment built among white suffragists, and meanwhile Wells felt Willard and Anthony weren’t helpful to the causes of African Americans who were still being lynched for sport. From NPR:

[Willard] was even willing to court white Southern women, at the expense of blacks, even though her parents had been abolitionists. “ ‘Better whiskey and more of it’ is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs,” Willard said in an 1890 interview with the New York Voice. “The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities.”

Wells was furious, as Willard was supposed to be a friend to the black community and black women had even joined her organization, the WCTU. Wells wrote in her autobiography Crusade for Justice that Willard “unhesitatingly slandered the entire Negro race in order to gain favor with those who are hanging, shooting and burning Negroes alive.”

This disloyalty caused Wells to realize that she didn’t know what to do with “good white people,” and she took her cause to England in 1893, lecturing on anti-lynching. Despite Wells’ rallying cries, many British couldn’t believe that Willard would ignore the struggles of black Americans so heinously. So Wells called Willard to the carpet in 1894 when the pair were invited to speak to temperance advocates as guests of Lady Henry Somerset, head of the temperance movement in Britain. And it went down.

Wells came to the lecture armed with a copy of the 1890 interview with the New York Voice that echoed such racist thinking. Willard had told the publication that the local tavern “is the Negro’s center of power … the colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt.”
When asked her opinion of Willard, Wells chose to read the interview. With Willard at her side and little time to actually speak, Wells asked the audience how influential white women could continue to turn a blind eye to the white mobs who threatened black lives. Afterward, she was able to get a British journal, the Fraternity, to reprint Willard’s interview.
Lady Somerset was so enraged by Wells’ commentary that she demanded that the Fraternity article not be printed, or Wells would never be heard in Britain again. The article was published anyway.

Now Lady Somerset was furious and called Wells’s friend and ally Douglass and told him to upbraid Wells. Douglass didn’t, but he wasn’t really helpful to Wells’s cause either, she wrote in her autobiography. Many feel that was because he didn’t want to muss up ties to Anthony and the suffragists or Willard and the temperance movement.

Back home, she formed the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. By 1898, she’d taken her anti-lynching cause to the White House with a protest in Washington, D.C. where she and her supporters called for President William McKinley to “make reforms.” She also married Ferdinand that year and hyphenated her married name to Ida B. Wells-Barnett, which was a big deal then. Though the couple had four children, Wells kept at her anti-lynching cause. In 1908, she attended one of the first conferences by the organization that would be the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the NAACP. She’s considered a founding member of the NAACP, but she left the organization because she felt they were more talk and less action-based.

To top it all off, in 1930 she ran for the Illinois State Senate (though she didn’t win).

In 1931, Wells-Barnett died at 69 years old of kidney disease. But even now, it’s heartening to know that there’s a legacy of women who fought for the rights of black America when the stakes were incredibly high. Wells-Barnett was a woman of fire, ideals and purpose with no time for foolishness, whether it came from white men, women or otherwise.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via Google, photo via Getty.

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