Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Biography of Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was an educator and journalist who began her civil rights activism in response to racist incidents she experienced in Memphis, Tennessee. Born into slavery in Mississippi, Wells had moved to Memphis in 1883 to further her teaching career, working to support herself and her siblings after her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic.

In 1884, Wells was forcibly removed from a train car because of her race. She sued the railroad for infringement of her rights, initially winning her case--although it was later overturned on appeal. She wrote about the incident in a local newspaper and subsequently began writing on race issues for local and national newspapers. In 1889 she became co-owner of Free Speech and Headlight, a Memphis newspaper. In 1891, the Memphis Board of Education dismissed her from teaching after she wrote several exposés about poor conditions in the city's black schools.

After three close Memphis friends were arrested and lynched by a white mob in 1892, Wells began to look further into the growing number of lynching incidents in the U.S. Using her journalism connections and investigative abilities, Wells began to shed light on the larger problem and call national leaders to account. In 1892, a white mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight after Wells wrote repeatedly about lynching. Later that year, she published the pamphlet "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases."

Unable to return to Memphis due to threats on her life, Wells moved to Chicago in 1893 and began a public speaking career to change public sentiment about lynching and press the federal government to take action. She lived in Chicago for the remainder of her life. Wells married Ferdinand Barnett (a Chicago attorney and graduate of Union College of Law, which later merged with Northwestern Law School) and had four children. She continued to work for justice and confronted racism in all forms. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and a black women’s suffrage organization, the Alpha Suffrage Club, in 1913, among many other projects. Wells died in 1931 at the age of sixty-nine.

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