|July 16, 1862—March 25, 1931 (aged 68)
|Civil rights and women's rights activist
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, editor and anti-lynching activist, was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862. Wells attended Rust College in Holly Springs until 1878, when a yellow fever epidemic killed her parents and one of her six siblings. Determined to keep her family together, Wells began teaching in surrounding areas. In 1881, she moved her youngest siblings to Memphis to live with an aunt and took a job as a schoolteacher in nearby Woodstock.
In September 1883, while commuting by train, Wells was asked to leave the "ladies' car" and move to the smoking car, where all African Americans were expected to sit. She refused to leave, bit the conductor who tried to remove her, and then filed a successful suit against the railroad. Teaching in the Memphis public schools from 1883 until 1891, Wells wrote articles for Black newspapers around the nation under the pen name "Iola." In 1889, she became part owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Two years later, the school board did not renew her contract after she wrote editorials critical of its actions. Elected secretary of the Black-run National Press Association in 1887, Wells became known as the "Princess of the Press" by her mostly male editorial colleagues.
In 1892, Wells found a focus for her militancy following a triple lynching in Memphis. After three young Black men opened the People's Grocery, a white competitor's resentment triggered a chain of events that led to their murders. Earlier lynchings had angered her, but the deaths of three friends brought the evil close to her. Turning the full force of her powerful pen against lynching, Wells attacked the premise that lynching was a necessary deterrent to Black rapists. In May she wrote a "Free Speech" editorial, in which she suggested that many rape charges arose from the discovery of voluntary sexual liaisons of white women with Black men. While Wells was away, angry whites closed the newspaper office and ran her partner out of Memphis.
Afraid to return home, Wells settled in New York and began writing for T. Thomas Fortune's New York Age. In June, the paper published a lengthy attack on lynching, reprinted as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In it, Wells argued that lynching was often used to counteract Black achievement and had grown worse as African Americans became more educated and successful.
After African American women in New York gave Wells a testimonial dinner, that raised about $400 for her crusade, she received dozens of lecture requests. On one visit to Philadelphia she met Catherine Impey, an Englishwoman who published the journal Anti-Caste. Early in 1893, Impey joined with Scottish author Isabelle Mayo to invite Wells to tour Scotland and England in the cause of anti-lynching. Following her first lecture, the women organized the Society for the Recognition of the Brotherhood of Mankind, which invited Wells back the next year for a second tour.
The attention of the English press catapulted Wells to the leadership of the anti-lynching movement. She used all available platforms for her message. At the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago during 1893, she joined with the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Chicago lawyer Ferdinand L. Barnett to circulate a coauthored protest pamphlet. Even after Wells married Barnett in 1895, she continued her activism. Assuming the editorship of her husband's newspaper, the Chicago Conservator, Wells-Barnett remained a militant voice, giving speeches, investigating lynchings, criticizing Booker T. Washington, starting organizations, and joining movements-while giving birth to four children.
Participating in the founding of such organizations as the National Association of Colored Women (1896), the Afro-American Council (1898), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1910), Wells-Barnett remained active in few. She personally founded the Ida B. Wells Women's Club in 1893; the Negro Fellowship League, a kind of settlement house for Black men, in 1910; and the Alpha Suffrage Club in 1913. In addition, from 1913 to 1916, Wells-Barnett served as an adult probation officer in Chicago. Always busy, she was active in the Republican Party and, in the three years before her death, began her autobiography and ran for the state senate. For more than four decades, Wells-Barnett's militant voice brought worldwide attention to the evil of lynching and influenced the course of American reform. She died in Chicago, Illinois, on March 25, 1931. On May 4, 2020, Ida B. Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize "for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching."