Ida B. Wells

Journalist, Anti-Lynching Crusader, Women’s Rights Advocate: 1862 - 1931

"I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said."

Biography

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, just months prior to emancipation in 1862. Her parents died of yellow fever when she was 14, and Wells, though minimally educated, began teaching to support her seven younger sisters and brothers. She somehow managed to keep her family together, graduate from Rust College, and secure a teaching position in Memphis in 1888.

When she was 22, Wells defied a conductor’s order in Tennessee to move to a segregated railroad car and was forcibly removed. She won a lawsuit (later overturned) against the railroad and, from that point on, worked consistently to overcome injustices to people of color and to women. In 1889 she became co-owner of a Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight. Her editorials protesting the lynching of three black friends led to a boycott of white businesses, the destruction of her newspaper office, and threats against her life. Undeterred, she carried her anti-lynching crusade to Chicago and published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, which documented racial lynching in America.

In 1895, when she married Ferdinand L. Barnett, attorney and owner of the Conservator, Chicago’s first black newspaper, she hyphenated her name, making it Wells-Barnett. Though married and the eventual the mother of four children, Wells-Barnett continued to write and organize. She was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), marched in the parade for universal suffrage in Washington, D.C. (1913), and established the Negro Fellowship League for black men and the first kindergarten for black children in Chicago.

She did not succeed in her crusade to get Congress to pass anti-lynching laws during her lifetime, but her efforts as a writer and activist dedicated to social change and justice established her as one of the most forceful and remarkable women of her time. Ida B. Wells died in Chicago. She once said: “One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”