Obit of the Day (Historical): Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1931)
Simply put Ida B. Wells-Barnett was one of the greatest leaders of the early civil rights movement in the United States. The daughter of slaves, Mrs. Wells-Barnett was inculcated with an appreciation for education as well as political involvement. (Her father was active in campaigning for black candidates in Mississippi during that short period between the end of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction when blacks in the South were encouraged to vote.)
She lost both of her parents and one sibling during a yellow fever epidemic when she was 16 years old. Now responsible for five younger sisters. she moved her family to Memphis, Tennessee to live with an aunt. She would work as a teacher and in the summer attend Fisk University in Nashville.
In 1884, when she was 24, Ms. Wells (she married in 1895) was traveling on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the “ladies’ car.” When a white man could not find a seat on the train, a conductor came to Ms. Wells and demanded that she move to the train car designated for black passengers.
Here is how she recounted the event: “I refused…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 by 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…and…they succeeded in dragging me out.” [Italics added for emphasis.]
Ms. Wells sued the railroad - and won in a Tennessee Circuit Court. Unfortunately the Tennessee Supreme Court found in favor of the railroad. (In 1897, the Supreme Court established the legal doctrine of “separate, but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson which codified segregation across the U.S.)
This moment began Ms. Wells’ lifelong fight for the rights of African Americans and women. She purchased part-ownership in The Memphis Free Speech, an all-black publication which boldly covered civil rights issues in Tennessee. She ended up leaving the business and fleeing to Chicago in 1892 after the paper published her articles investigating the lynching of three black grocers. She received death threats.
In Chicago, she and Frederick Douglass co-wrote a pamphlet titled, The Reason Why the Colored American is Not at the World’s Columbian Exposition. (The 1893 Exposition was made famous in the book, Devil in the White City.) In response the leadership of the fair initiated a “Negro Day.” Ms. Wells and Mr. Douglass were unimpressed.
But her primary goal was to end lynching in the South. Peaking between the 1880s and the 1960s, Southern whites would take extra-legal actions against blacks who violated an unwritten “code” of behavior. Often in collusion with law enforcement lynch mobs would beat, burn, and hang black men, women, and children for unsubstantiated crimes, for speaking inappropriately, or any reason that would fire up the white population.
During her long fight for basic rights, Ms. Wells would meet with President William McKinley, tour England, and was a founding member of the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, whose husband Ferdinand founded the first black newspaper in Chicago, The Conservator, was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988 and was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1990.
She passed away on March 25, 1931 at the age of 68.
Sources: www.idabewells.org, Webster University, Duke University, College of Staten Island, Encyclopedia of Chicago, The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture, National Women’s Hall of Fame, and Wikipedia
(Image of Mrs. Wells-Barnett is circa 1893 when she was in her early 30s. It is courtesy of www.googleartproject.com)