Ida Bell Wells-Barnett

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an African American journalist, newspaper editor and an early leader in the civil rights movement. She documented the extent of lynching in the United States, and was also active in the women's rights movement and the women's suffrage movement.

Born July 16, 1862, Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, just before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father James Wells was a carpenter and her mother was Elizabeth "Lizzie" Warrenton Wells. Both parents were slaves until freed at the end of the Civil War. Ida’s father James was a master at carpentry and known as a race man. He was also very interested in politics, but he never took office. Her mother Elizabeth was a cook for the Bolling household, and was a religious woman who was very strict with her children.

Ida B. Wells attended Rust University, a freedmen's school in Holly Springs. When Ida was only fourteen, a tragic epidemic of Yellow Fever swept through Holly Springs and killed her parents and youngest sibling. With grace, willpower, and hard work. Ida Bell Wells kept the family together by securing a job teaching at a county school. She eventually moved to Memphis to live with her aunt, where she continued her education at Fisk Univeristy while continuing her teaching and helping to raise her younger sisters.

On May 4, 1884, a Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company train conductor ordered Ida Bell Wells to give up her seat on the train and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. At the time, the Supreme Court had just struck down the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Several railroad companies were able to continue legal racial segregation of their passengers.

Wells protested and refused to give up her seat 71 years before Rosa Parks. The conductor and two other men dragged Wells out of the car. When she returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an African American attorney to sue the railroad. Wells became a public figure in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article, for "The Living Way," a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train.

When her lawyer was paid off by the railroad, she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884 when the local circuit court granted her a $500 settlement. The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling in 1885, concluding that, "We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride." Wells was ordered to pay court costs.

In 1889, Ida Bell Wells became an editor and co-owner of a local black newspaper called "The Free Speech and Headlight" ,an anti-segregationist newspaper based at the Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis that published articles about racial injustice. She wrote her editorials under the pen-name "Iola." Wells held strong political opinions on both civil rights and woman's suffrage.  When she was 24, she wrote, "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge." Her strongly worded writings slowly gained a reputation, and she began to be noticed by dangerous white supremacist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan, and violence soon followed.

A grocery store, the People's Grocery Company, owned by three black men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, was perceived as taking away a substantial amount of business from a white-owned grocery store that was across the street. One night, while Wells was out of town an attack broke out when a white mob invaded the grocery store, which ended in three white men being shot and injured. Moss, McDowell, and Stewart, who were Wells' friends, were jailed. A large lynch mob stormed the jail cells and killed them.

After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote an article in the Free Speech urging blacks to leave Memphis: "There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons." Wells emphasized the public spectacle of the lynching. Over 6,000 blacks did leave; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. Being personally threatened with violence, Wells wrote in her autobiography that she bought a pistol: "They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth.

Ida B. Wells did research and wrote a series of editorials on southern lynchings, bringing the hidden violence out into the light. She also wrote a :scathing editorial attacking white female purity and suggested that it was possible for white women to be attracted to Black men. Ida B. Wells was on her way to a conference in Philadelphia when the editorial appeared,  escaping the firestorm of violent protest. The newspaper office was destroyed and threats were made against her life.

Taking the threats seriously, Ida B. Wells did not return to Memphis, and chose to move to New York where she continued expose  on lynching, which culminatied in the story "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases." Later, she toured England and Scotland, publicizing the plight of African Americans. Ida Bell Wells wrote strong editorials against lynching and racism in many papers, such as the Indianapolis Freeman, the Detroit Plaindealer, and the New York Sun.

Moving to Chicago to continue her work on civil rights, Ida Bell Wells was known as one of the most influential and inspiring black leaders of the time, along with Fredrick Douglass. Wells, Douglass, and other black leaders, organized a boycott of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, and wrote a pamphlet to be distributed during the exposition. Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition detailed the progress of blacks since their arrival in America and the workings of Southern lynchings. Wells decided to stay in the city instead of returning to New York City and took work with the Chicago Conservator, the oldest African American newspaper paper in the city.

In 1895 Ida Bell Wells married the editor of the Chicago Conservator, who was also a practicing lawyer at the time. Always the political front runner, Ida Bell Wells set an early precedent as being one of the first married American women to keep her own last name with her husband's.  She wrote: "I was married in the city of Chicago to Attorney F. L. Barnett, and retired to what I thought was the privacy of a home." She did not stay retired long and continued writing and organizing. In 1906, she joined with William E.B. DuBois and others to further the Niagara Movement, and she was one of two African American women to sign "the call" to form the NAACP in 1909.

Although Ida B. Wells was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she was also among the few Black leaders to explicitly oppose Booker T. Washington and his strategies. As a result, she was viewed as one the most radical of the so-called "radicals" who organized the NAACP and marginalized from positions within its leadership.

As late as 1930, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett became disgusted by the nominees of the major parties to the state legislature, and decided to run for the Illinois State legislature, which made her one of the first Black women to run for public office in the United States. A year later, she passed away after a lifetime crusading for justice.

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on the Civil Rights leaders in Black history in the United States

The begining - Early Activists

After the Civil War blacks suffered greatly in the South. African Americans became targets for enraged white southerners. Lynchings killed hundreds of blacks every year.

Alabama Leaders

In the spring of 1963 civil rights leaders turned to Birmingham Alabama, calling it the most segregated city in America.

Journalists & Authors

"The civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings if it hadn't been for the news media," said Rep. John Lewis.

Islam Leaders

The Nation of Islam is an African-American religious movement founded in Detroit, Michigan, by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad in July 1930.

Mississippi Leaders

Only 37 years old, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his home in Jackson on June 12, 1963.

Lawyers & Polticians

Living in large inner cities allowed African Americans to be part of a large extended culture. It also gave them a large voting block when they were finally able to vote without harassment.


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