IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT
Ida B. Wells-Barnett is first among many. She was a civil servant and fought injustices amongst the black community. Ida was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862. There she witnessed the Civil War and the dramatic changes it brought to her life. During Reconstruction she found possession of previously unheard-of freedoms, her civil rights. The most dramatic change was the institution of schools for the education of blacks. The establishment of the Freedman’s Aid Society founded by Shaw University, later renamed Rust College, and was where Ida attended classes. Ida possessed an interest in school, and she quickly worked her way through every book in the Rust College library. At an early age she demonstrated leadership and a strong liking to journalism. Growing up in Memphis opened opportunities for Ida to further her education at LeMoyne Institution and Fisk University. Her impact among the Negro community was first felt in May 1884. On her way to work, Ida boarded her usual seat on the first-class ladies coach, she was asked by the conductor to move to the forward car, which was a smoker. Wells refused, got off the train, returned to Memphis, and
filed suit against the Chesapeake, Ohio, and SouthWestern Railroad Company for refusing to provide her the first-class accommodations for which she paid. In December, 1884 the Memphis Circuit Court ruled in her favor and awarded her $500 in damages. The reaction within the white community was expressed in the Memphis Appeal, “Darky Damsel Gets Damages” (Klots, 32) Although her success was short lived when the company appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the decision.
Wells-Barnett’s willingness to use the courts to challenge Jim Crow laws was well ahead of her time. Using her forceful pen to write of her experience and outcome soon led her to writing regularly for the black press throughout the country. Ida gained a reputation for fearlessness because of her militant opinions she openly expressed in print. Through her writings she was able to influence the black community, nonetheless educate them and sympathizers of injustices against them. The impact of Ida B. Wells-Barnett was felt within the Negro community through her anti-lynching crusade, journalistic writings, and prominent organizations.
With the sharpness of her pen, Ida raised the battle cry against the American “national crime” of lynching. Infuriated by the Memphis lynching in 1892, which involved a close friend; Ida expressed her grief in an editorial in the local black newspaper, Free Speech:
“The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are outnumbered and without arms…There is therefore only one thing left we can do; save our money and leave town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, when accused by white persons.” (Hine, 28)
At the same time Wells saw what lynching really was; an excuse to “keep the nigger down”, and execute those “who acquired wealth and property.” (Duster, 64) This sparked her investigation into the causes of lynching-rape. In Crusade for Justice Ida, “stumbled on the amazing record that every case of rape reported became such only when it became public.” (Duster, 65) Since whites could no longer hold blacks as slaves they found in mob violence a different means of maintaining a system of “economic,
psychological, and sexual exploitation.” (Klots, 42) In addition, the result of her investigation and editorial
sparked the black community to retaliate and encourage all who could to leave, and those who stayed to boycott the city Railroad Company. Ida saw the success of the boycott, and asserted, “the appeal to the white man’s pocket has ever been more effectual than all appeals ever made to his conscience.” (Klots, 42) Her numerous editorials on lynching received an enormous response amongst black Americans. At any rate, Wells-Barnett knew that to campaign effectively against lynching she had to reach white northerners and the northern press. She began lecturing throughout the Northeast.
Touring brought Ida local and international fame, which lead to her invitation overseas. Wells lectured all over England, Scotland, and Wales. Her lectures were praised as, “clear, enlightening, and powerful”, and provided the British with an insight of the atrocities of lynching against blacks. (Smith, 1235) On the other hand, her efforts saw the growth of organizations pledging to fight segregation and lynching. Wells-Barnett brought forth an issue to the forefront of America. Not only did
she strive to seek justice for lynchings but justice from crimes that hindered black progression.
Her writing discussed other issues plaguing the black community. As a teacher employed in the Memphis School System, Ida witnessed the poor conditions in school for black children. In an unsigned article, she condemned this discrimination as well as “the poor mental and moral character” of many of her fellow educators. (Klots, 37) Wells-Barnett used her experience to attack the injustice against blacks in the school system but she also addressed the issue of the weakness of the black community that allowed such injustices to continue. Ida possessed a passionate feeling for education. She saw education as an opportunity for advancement. Ida hole outwardly disagreed with Booker T. Washington’s position on industrial education and was mortified with his implication that blacks were illiterate and immoral, until the coming of Tuskegee. (Hine, 80) Outraged by his remarks, she considered his rejection of a college education as a bitter pill. (Hine, 80) As matter of fact, She argued in an article entitled Booker T. Washington and His Critics (World Today, April 1904) regarding industrial education,
This gospel of work is no new one for the Negro. It is the South’s old slavery practice in a new dress. (Hine, 198) Furthermore, she felt that industrial education limited the types of education and number of school open to aspiring young blacks. Ida saw Washington as no better than the whites that justified their actions through lynching. In all her writings she maintained her goal of finding justice for the Negro race and in doing so she set forth in community work.
Her diligent commitment to the community resulted in prominent organizations. Her work among the clubwomen for social improvement in Chicago started the formation of the Ida B. Wells Club. Through her club she established a kindergarten for black children. It was the first black women’s club in Chicago with there motto stating, Helping Hand. The clubs main objective was Elevation of Women, Home, and Community. The club achieved two other outstanding achievements besides establishing the first kindergarten; it assisted in forming the first black orchestra in Chicago, and had a charter membership in the League of Cook County Clubs. The last achievement was significant because it lead to integration with the
participation of other black clubs in the formally all white organization. Elizabeth L. Davis, founder of the
Phyllis Wheatley Club, recognized the benefit derived by later organizations from the association and activities of the first club:
From these helpful programs of club work, race unity and parliamentary drill in the mother club, have sprung all the other clubs of Chicago and the state and from the ranks of its members have come many of our club presidents, our leading business women and our leading church and social service workers. (Hine, 90)
In addition to her commitment among black women she acknowledged as a whole the importance of civil rights among the Negro race as a whole. Her activity lead to her being one of the founders of the NAACP, which to this day plays a pivotal role in the civil rights activity of black Americans.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a crusader for the black race she possessed a gift for expressing her ideas in a way that could stir a nation. Wells-Barnett was a woman with a strong sense of justice. She was the pioneer of the anti-lynching crusade raising her voice in protest, and writing with a fiery pen.
She was direct and possessed strength during a time when this was unheard of by a woman especially a black woman. A reformer of her time, she believed Negroes had to
organize themselves and fight for their independence against white oppression. She roused the white South to bitter defense and began the awakening of the conscience of a nation. Through her campaign, writings, and agitation she raised crucial questions about the future of black Americans. Today we as black Americans do not rally against oppression like those that came before us. Gone are the days when we organized together, today we live in a society that does not want to get involved as a whole. What we fail to realize is that there is strength in numbers and that we must not lose sight of the struggles that went on before us that granted our civil rights. Sure, gone are the days of Jim Crow and even though there is not a movement that will define this generation it is important to realize that the fight for equality is never over.