Ida Wells-Barnett was an African-American educator, journalist, and a fearless activist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the 1890s. Born in 1862, Ida Wells was the daughter of slaves, growing up in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her parents were freed from slavery shortly after her birth and the family was supported by the wages her parents brought in. Her mother was a “famous” cook in the area and her father was a skilled carpenter.
When Ida was only fourteen-years-old, tragedy struck. An epidemic of Yellow Fever swept through Holly Springs taking the life of her parents and youngest sibling. Rising to the occasion, Ida kept the rest of the family together by securing a teaching position. In order to further her education, she attended near-by Rust College, eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with her aunt and help raise her younger sisters.
Ida’s fight for racial and gender justice began in 1884 while she was traveling to a school in Memphis. While on the train, Ida was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man. She was ordered to take a seat in the smoking or “Jim Crow” car, which was already full of passengers. She refused and when he grabbed her wrist to move her, she bit him. The conductor then went forward and got two other men to help him, and together they dragged her out of the train, to the applause of the all-white passengers in the parlor car in which she was seated.
When she returned to Memphis, she immediately secured an attorney and sued the railroad. She won her case, initially, but when the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, it reversed the decision of the lower court. This was the first of Ida’s many struggles to overturn injustices in America against women and minorities.
Soon after the incident with the Memphis railroad, Ida took up the pen. Her teaching career ended after she penned a series of articles that denounced the inadequate education provided to Black children. A short time later Ida became part owner of the Memphis Star newspaper where she used her writing to launch searing attacks against the practice of lynching.
In 1892, three of Ida’s good friends were lynched. The three men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart were owners of People’s Grocery Company and their small grocery business had competed with white businesses. A group of angry white men attacked the People’s Grocery, hoping to “eliminate” this competition, but the three owners fought back, shooting one of the attackers. The owners of the People’s Grocery were arrested, but a lynch mob broke into the jail and dragged the three men away from the town and murdered them. This incensed Ida and she wrote a scathing article calling for justice. As a result of her investigative journalism and exposing injustice, her newspaper office was destroyed and Ida moved to Chicago.
Her move to Chicago did not silence Ida. Here she continued her blistering attacks on Southern injustices, being especially active in exposing unjust lynching of Black men, which were common in the South. Ida helped to found numerous African American women and reform groups as well and was active in the cause of women’s suffrage. She also worked along side Jane Addams to successfully block the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago.
In 1895 Ida married F.L. Barnett, the editor of the Chicago Conservator. Though her intent was to retire from public life to the privacy of her home, she did not remain retired for long. Ida continued writing and organizing minority groups. In fact, she became one of two African American women to sign “the call” to form the NAACP in 1909 and single-handedly founded the first Black woman suffrage organization, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago.
Ida Wells-Barnett the fearless and well-respected fighter for the rights of all mankind died in Chicago, Illinois in 1931 at the age of sixty-nine.