Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Let’s be clear: Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a badass. And the fact that her name was never mentioned in any of my history classes (all the way through a college minor in history…) is an unbelievable disservice to her legacy. Dear reader, as far as I can help it, you will know Ida.

Ida Wells
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune historical archives

Ida Wells was born as an enslaved person in Mississippi on July 16, 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved persons when Wells was too young to remember, but of course, slavery had a lasting effect on both her family, community, and society. James Wells, Ida’s father, was actively involved in the Freedman’s Aid Society during Reconstruction, and served on the first board of trustees of Shaw University, which is now Rust College. Ida began her education at Shaw, but when she was 16, both her parents and an infant brother were killed by yellow fever. As the oldest, Ida had to care for her siblings. She convinced a school administrator that she was 18 in order to secure a job as a teacher and provide for her family. Two years later, she and her sisters moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with an aunt while her brothers became carpenters apprentices. Ida pursued further education at Fisk University in Nashville. At age 22, Ida started her transition into a civil rights activist and icon.

In May 1884, having purchased a first-class ticket on a train ride from Memphis to Nashville, Ida was horrified that the crew asked her to move to the train car for African-Americans. As she was forcibly removed from the train, she bit the hand of one of the men grabbing her. She sued the railroad company and was awarded a $500 settlement, which was then overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. At this injustice, Ida began to write.

She published numerous articles in Black newspapers under the name “Iola.” While working as an investigative journalist, she continued to work as a teacher in Memphis. In 1891, she was fired by the school for her activist work. In 1892, three African-American men – Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart – opened a grocery store, which drew business away from the local white-owned grocery store. The three men had to guard their store against the white vandals, and one night ended up shooting several of them. They were arrested and brought to jail, but denied due process. A mob took them from their cells and lynched them. Ida Wells, who had a friend that had been lynched, began writing ferociously about lynching, spending two dangerous months traveling the South in search of other lynching cases and information. Her reporting enraged whites in Memphis, who burned her printing press at Memphis Free Speech. The threats forced Wells to relocate to Chicago, but she continued her anti-lynching campaign.

In 1895, Ida Wells married lawyer Ferdinand Barnett and together they had four children. Ida helped found the National Association of Colored Women’s Club to help address both civil rights and women’s suffrage. She was present at the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 but was not mentioned. She was a strong-willed activist and her personality vexed others in the activism community, including those in the NAACP. She was blacklisted from speaking at some events at major venues and clashed ideologically with some members of civil rights groups. She traveled abroad regularly, where she could write articles for American publications safely.

Bittersweetly, Wells knew that the only person who would cement her place in history was her, and she began writing her autobiography in 1928. She passed away three years later without having finished writing. The book was edited by her daughter and posthumously published as Crusade for Justice in 1970, nearly three decades after Ida’s death.

Ida balanced her activism with motherhood in a fiercely respectable way. She should be considered a co-founder of the NAACP. She was a groundbreaking investigative journalist that was instrumental to the early civil rights movement. She was scientific and analytical in a way that was indisputable. Ida Barnett-Wells was a brilliant and courageous woman, and there is much, much more to her story than I have been able to write here.

Ida Wells-Barnett in 1930, shortly before her death.
Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum via

Material sourced from:
– Arlisha R. Norwood,
– Giddings, P. (2001). Missing in Action Ida B. Wells, the NAACP, and the Historical Record. Meridians, 1(2), 1-17. Retrieved March 6, 2021, from

Further readings:
Crusade for Justice by Ida B. Wells

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