Ida B. Wells Barnett
Ida Wells Barnett was a trailblazing journalist, a co-founder of the NAACP and a fierce advocate for equal rights and against lynching.
From 1884 to 1891, Ida B. Wells taught segregated public school in Memphis, Tennessee, and began writing articles for the Free Speech, a Black newspaper. In 1891, the Memphis Board of Education fired her because her articles were too fiery and controversial. Later, she acquired a partnership in the Free Speech, became its editor and traveled throughout the southern states.
Ida B. Wells was strong-willed and spirited. Once when asked to leave the “White section” of a train, she flatly refused and had to be forcibly removed by three conductors. She sued and won $500 in damages, but the decision was later reversed. She became an outspoken antagonist against the senseless murders (i.e., lynchings) of black people.
Later, writing under a pen name, she published a shocking, detailed expose on the activities of the lynch mobs. The same night the expose’ appeared in the Free Speech, her printing office was vandalized and all the equipment and copies of the Free Speech were destroyed. She went to New York where she joined the staff of the New York Age, edited by T. Thomas Fortune, and began a fervent crusade against lynching.
In 1895, Ida B. Wells published “A Red Record,” a serious statistical treatment of lynchings in the United States, which could not be refuted. She discredited the myth that black men were lynched because they raped white women. The fact was, she stated, ”they were murdered” because whites felt that black people were “too uppity and too successful.” In her appeal to President William McKinley for support, she stated, “Nowhere in the civilized world, save in the United States, do men go out in bands of fifty to five thousand, to hunt down, shoot, hang or burn to death a single individual, unarmed and absolutely powerless.”
In 1895, Ida married Ferdinand Barnett, an attorney and a Chicago newspaper owner, and later bore four children. Together, they used their newspaper to expose injustice perpetrated against black people. Mrs. Barnett became frustrated that violence against black people was growing and that nothing was being done. Once, when investigating a lynching in Cairo, Illinois, she found the black townspeople too afraid to protest. Alone, she went to the State House in Springfield to argue against the reinstatement of the sheriff who had permitted the murder. For more than a day, she pleaded her case against the best lawyers in southern Illinois and won. That was the last of lynching in the state of Illinois.
Ida B. Wells Barnett was perhaps the most famous black female journalist of her time. She was a correspondent for the Memphis Watchman, Detroit Plain Dealer Indianapolis World, and the Little Rock Sun, to name a few. Mr. T. Thomas Fortune, a noted black editor of the time, said, “She has become famous as one of the few of our women who handle a goose quill, with diamond point, as easily as any man in the newspaper work.” Mrs. Barnett was cited as one of the 25 outstanding women in Chicago’s history, and one of the housing projects bears her name. She died in 1931