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One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap. - Ida B. Wells-Barentt

Questions to Evaluate:

1. Who was Ida B. Wells-Barnett and how did she contribute to the Civil Rights Movement?
2. How did Ida B. Wells- Barnett respond to lynching?
3. Why was Ida B. Wells- Barnett’s case against the railroad company so important even though in the end, she lost the case?
4. In what ways did Ida B. Wells clash with Booker T. Washington in ideas for a better society for African Americans?


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Playing a huge role early on in Civil Rights Movement, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the powerful leader of the anti-lynching crusade, a courageous journalist, a fearless newspaper editor, and a determined orator She was an African American who stood up and fought for equal rights during a time when women had almost no power in society and when laws, known as Jim Crow laws, were formed to defend racism that whites presented against African Americans. Ida B. Wells climbed her way up the ladder beginning as a desperate teenager whose parents died leaving behind five children to care for and ending as one of the nation’s greatest historical figures who contributed to shaping equality for all.

98.7 Kiss FM celebrates Black History Month

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"A tribute to Ida B. Wells Barnett. She wrote many books and Pamphlets against Lynching in the South After the Civil war period."

Early Life

Holly Springs, Mississippi today.
Holly Springs, Mississippi today.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862 during the second year of the Civil War and thus, she was born a slave. She was the oldest of seven children. Her mother, Elizabeth Wells, was a well-known cook and her father, Jim Wells, was a carpenter. Jim was interested in politics so he joined a local black political organization known as the Loyal League and ran for local black political positions.

Both Jim and Elizabeth took education seriously. Elizabeth and her children decided to attend Shaw University, a school for the black community that opened in Holly Springs in 1866. Her experience at this school sparked her interest in reading and writing. “She reportedly read every book in the school library, from the novels of Louisa May Alcott and Charles Dickens to the Oliver Optic stores, a series of popular books for boys.” [3] This was also where Ida first discovered racism. In her autobiography, she wrote: “"I had read the bible and Shakespeare through, but I had never read a Negro book or anything about Negroes"[3]

The Yellow Fever epidemic charged its way into Holly Springs and took the lives of Well’s parents and youngest sibling when she was only sixteen years old. As simply just a teenager still pursuing an education, she was determined to support the five younger siblings left behind by her parents at the same time. Wells continued school at Rust College.

The Rosa Parks of her Time

A drawing of Ida B. Wells-Barnett
A drawing of Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Wells needed someone to help support and raise her younger siblings while she pursued her job as a teacher. Wells and her siblings moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1883. Shortly after, in 1884, Wells first demonstrated her bravery towards racism. She refused give up her seat for a white man when asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to move to the smoking (aka Jim Crow) car that was already completely filled. “Despite the 1875 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color, in theaters, hotels, transports, and other public accommodations, several railroad companies defied this congressional mandate and racially segregated its passengers.”[1] Through physical violence, the conductor was able to literally drag Ida B. Wells out of the car.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote about the terrible experience in her autobiography: “I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies' car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn't try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”[1]

Wells took her case to court. She hired an attorney to sue the railroad company. She won the case, but soon realized that the company had sent an appeal to the Supreme Court of Tennessee. This court decision of the lower court that Wells went to was reversed and she lost the case. This entire experience happened before the Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896 that made racial segregation legal in the United States.

Spark of Journalist Career

Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s case against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company made an impact on her decision to become a journalist. Audiences of throughout the nation were interested to find out how a mere 25 year old African American female school teacher “stood up against white supremacy”.[1] In 1889, Wells was offered to become a co-owner and editor of a local black newspaper named the Free Speech and Headlight.

Wells wrote her editorials under the pen name of “Iola”. She wrote about her strong disapproval of violence against African Americans, poor black schools, and how it was a failure that black people didn’t fight for their rights. She also wrote several articles on civil rights for local newspapers. Wells was fired from her job as a teacher when she wrote an article that criticized the Memphis Board of Education. She became a full-time journalist.

Anti-Lynching Crusade

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One of the pamphlets written by Ida B. Wells-Barnett in1899.
One of the pamphlets written by Ida B. Wells-Barnett in1899.
A friend of Ida B. Wells named Thomas Moss, along with two other black men, were lynched in 1892. (Lynching was the act of killing someone for an alleged offense without a legal trial, usually by hanging.) They were the owners of the People’s Grocery Company and also fellow acquaintances of Ida B. Wells. Their grocery store had taken away customers from other white grocery stores that were competing against them. The "elimination of the competition" began when a group of white men attacked People’s Grocery. The owners fought against them and shot one of the attackers which resulted in their arrest. Soon after, a lynch-mob broke into the jail to take the three owners from town, where they were murdered.

This event drastically decreased her courage, which caused her to write about the dangers of Memphis in the Free Speech. Numerous amounts of people took Wells advice that she conducted in the Free Speech and left Memphis. Other Black community members created a boycott of white owned business to attempt to restrict lynching.

As a result of her journalism actions after the murder of her friends, her newspaper office was destroyed. Ida B. Wells then moved to Chicago, knowing that she could not return to Memphis. However, she continued to pursue in her journalism, writing about the attacks on Southern injustices, including lynching acts in which she investigated and exposed deceitful reasons that were used as an excuse
A modern day political cartoon about lynching.
A modern day political cartoon about lynching.
to lynch Black men, which was a natural event.external image zoom_116254.jpg

After this time period, Wells moved to New York. She found interest in the New York Age, which encouraged her to intensify her campaign against lynching. Various acts that she conducted include lectures, newspaper articles, and pamphlets. In 1893, Wells traveled to Great Britain to give lectures in hopes of making her anti-lynching crusade known throughout the world. Some of the works that she wrote included Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892); A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, 1892, 1893, and 1894 (1895); and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900). She wrote a column entitled "Ida B. Wells Abroad" for the Chicago Inter-Ocean and also co-wrote a pamphlet which protested the exclusion of blacks from the Chicago World’s Fair which took place in 1893.

Fight for Women’s Rights

A photograph of the National American Woman Suffrage Association that was taken around the 1890s.
A photograph of the National American Woman Suffrage Association that was taken around the 1890s.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett helped to find several African American female organizations in Chicago, Illinois. They included the Ida B. Wells Club, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, and the Chicago Negro Fellowship League. With the help of Jane Addams, the Ida B. Wells Club prevented segregated schools in Chicago. She also played an important role in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women. It was an organization that supported help for child care, job training, and wage equity, anti-lynching, and transportation segregation.

Over 5,000 suffragists from National American Woman Suffrage Association paraded in Washington, D.C. on March 3, 1913. When Wells tried to line up with her white delegates from Illinois, she was asked to retreat to the end of the line to march with black women. Wells refused and joined the Illinois delegation anyway. This was another one of the brave moments where she stood up to white supremacy.

NAACP and Later Life

Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the four children she had with F.L Barnett.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the four children she had with F.L Barnett.
It was during the year 1895 when Wells married a newspaper editor from one of Black paper, Attorney F.L. Barnett, also the founder of Conservator. After having a husband Wells decided start a family, (she had four children) and retired. But retirement did not last long. She published a book about how she thought lynching was a way to prevent blacks from being involved in politics. It was named Lynching and the Excuse for It.
The NAACP Logo
The NAACP Logo

Wells-Barnett joined W. E. B. DuBois and many others in 1905 to continue the Niagara Movement which was create because she and other Black leaders who were against Booker T. Washington . Washington believed that African Americans should focus more on “self-improvement through education and economic improvement instead of pressing whites for political rights.”[5] DuBois and Wells believed the complete opposite and wanted Africans to continue and fight for political rights. In 1909, she was one of the two African American women that help start the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

A photograph of Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her elderly years.
A photograph of Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her elderly years.

In 1928 Wells-Barnett began to write her autobiography named Crusade Justice during her retirement. During 1930 Wells-Barnett ran for the position of Illinois State legislature because she did not believe the nominees were suited to be State legislature. She recorded the campaign in her diary. But a year later on March 25 of 1931 Wells-Barnett passed away due to her illness, uremia at the age of sixty-nine.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s  grave.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s grave.

Ida B Wells

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This video also includes information about the Jim Crow Era.





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Video 2 :