Ida B. Wells

By Sala Thanassi

“Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), wearing “Martyred Negro Soldiers” button, between 1917–1919.”

Ida B. Wells was a writer, suffragist, and civil rights activist who contributed significantly to movements against racial injustice and lynching in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through her standing as a writer and editor, she aided in exposing the brutal realities of racial violence and was a fierce advocate for women’s suffrage.

Section One: A Brief Biography

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was born on the 16th of July, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Like Mary Church Terrell’s parents, Wells’ father (called Jim, from James Wells) was the son of his master and one of his master’s slaves. Wells’ mother (Elizabeth “Lizzie” Warrenton) was sold into slavery with two of her sisters when they were young, first from Virginia and then from Mississippi. She shared information with her children about her slave past, informing Wells’ understanding of race relations at an early age. Ida B. Wells was freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation when she was just six months old: her father took initiative to move the family off the property of his former enslaver and rent their own house. Wells’ father was interested in politics and taught Wells to read and write at a young age, as well as exposing her to matters of racial injustice alongside her mother.

“…I heard the words Klu Klux Klan long before I knew what they meant.”

from Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, p. 8

Wells and her siblings attended school at what was then called Shaw University. Her father was one of the trustees, and her mother went to school alongside the children until she learned how to read the Bible. Both of Wells’ parents were invested in providing their children with a good education, a commonality between Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. When Wells was sixteen years old, her parents both died in a yellow fever epidemic, along with one of her siblings. She took on the responsibility of raising the rest of her younger siblings, and dropped out of school in order to do so. In 1884, she and her siblings moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with their aunt. After arriving, Wells enrolled in the night program at Fisk University and continued to further her education. She persevered through segregation and discrimination in the classroom, and was an accomplished student. (Wells)

Section Two: Wells’ Teaching Background

Shortly after her parents’ and sibling’s deaths, Wells applied to work as a schoolteacher in the country. After moving to Memphis, she began teaching at a school in Shelby County, Tennessee, which paid a better salary than her previous position. One day while riding the bus to the school, the conductor told Wells to leave the compartment she was in. Wells recalled, “There were no jim crow cars then. But ever since the repeal of the Civil Rights Bill by the United States Supreme Court in 1877 there had been efforts all over the South to draw the color line on the railroads” (Wells 16). After being dragged off the train, Wells enlisted a lawyer to bring a suit against the railroad and she was awarded five hundred dollars in damages. The case attracted a large amount of attention, as it was the first case in which a Black plaintiff in the South had appealed to a state court since the repeal of the Civil Rights Bill by the United States Supreme Court. Throughout the trial, Wells used the money earned from her teaching salary to pay the costs leveled against her during the unfolding of the trial. (Wells)

Wells joined a lyceum of public school teachers that met every Friday afternoon in the Vance Street Christian Church. The group conducted literary exercises, always closing with a reading of the journal Evening Star. When the editor of the Evening Star moved to Washington, Wells was elected as his replacement. Drawn by her work, a local pastor recruited her to write weekly letters to his weekly paper, the Living Way. Wells signed the papers “Iola” (Wells). 

In Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s novel Iola Leroy, the character of “Violet” has been theorized by some scholars to be inspired by Wells. In the novel, the young Black woman named Violet becomes a journalist and devotes herself to platforming the injustices leveled against Black Americans in the post-Civil War South. Violet uses her writing as a form of activism, focusing on the horrors of lynching amongst other forms of racial violence. The fact that scholars have identified the strong resemblance between Violet and Ida B. Wells speaks to the importance of recovering the contributions of Black women to a multitude of historical (and contemporary) moments. The recognition of connections such as these allows for a fuller and more accurate picture of the social and political landscape at the time, sheds light on the multiplicity of Black women’s voices that advanced the struggle for justice and equality, and reiterates the vitality of recognizing their contributions and achievements. To read more about other influential journalists and teachers, refer to this page.

Due to a series of unique circumstances, in the year of 1886 Wells taught in one month in the states of California, Missouri, and Tennessee (four days in Visalia, one day in Kansas City, and the remainder of the school year in a fourth-grade classroom in Memphis). Wells did not particularly like teaching: she stated, “I never cared for teaching, but I had always been very conscientious in trying to do my work honestly. There seemed nothing else to do for a living except menial work, and I could not have made a living at that” (Wells 28). In the late 1880s, Ida B. Wells and Fannie Barrier Williams met and became close friends and allies in the fight for civil rights (First Wave Feminisms).

“The article in the Chicago Daily Tribune about Wells winning her case at the trial level”

Section Three: The National Association of Colored Women

Ida B. Wells’ activist focus centered around speaking out about lynching and racial violence. Her organization around southern violence outside of the region led to the formation of scores of anti-lynching committees and the founding of the National Association of Colored Women (Schechter 276).

“Banner with motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs”

Wells recalls the formation of the National Association of Colored Women in her autobiography, Crusade For Justice. She traveled to Washington with her four-month-old baby and an accompanying nurse, to attend the 1896 meeting of the Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She states, “It was a famous gathering of famous women… Mrs. Terrell, a graduate of Oberlin College who had been a teacher in Washington High School for a number of years, herself being the wife of a prominent attorney in Washington and believed to be the most highly educated woman we had in the race, was chosen president of the consolidated organization” (Wells 204-205). 

Section Four: The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893

In June of 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition (otherwise known as the Chicago World’s Fair) drew international crowds to Chicago in their stated mission to showcase the technological, cultural, and artistic achievements of the United States and other nations around the world. In establishing the structure of the fair, President Benjamin Harrison failed to include any racial minorities in his 208-person Board of National Commissioners, the official administrative body (Paddon, Turner 19-20). There were unsuccessful attempts to include Black women’s representation by several different women’s groups, who petitioned to the Board of Lady Managers. Wells noted that only one Black man, J.E. Johnson, was appointed to a clerical position, while another clerical position was filled by Fannie Barrier Williams only two months before the exposition began. Fannie Barrier Williams replaced Mrs. A.M. Curtis, who also held the position for only a few months. 

“These three clerical positions constitute[d] the best representation accorded the colored people during the entire Exposition period.”

The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, p. 129

Ida B. Wells approached several black newspapers to raise money for the publication of a pamphlet which would inform international visitors about the exclusion Black creators faced from government and fair officials. This pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, was made available in German, French, and Spanish for maximized exposure across its intended international audience. It included an introduction by reverend statesman Frederick Douglass, a chapter by Virginia educator Irvine Garland Penn, a chapter by Wells herself on the subject of lynching, and the final chapter was written by lawyer and newspaper publisher Ferdinand Lee Barnett, who would become Wells’ husband two years later. Due to unsteady fund-raising efforts, the pamphlet did not appear until several months after the fair opened, rendering remedies for the situation even more unlikely.

The work of Wells and other activists (including the protest of The Congress of Colored Women, which included figures such as Mary Church Terrell, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Fannie Barrier Williams as they championed the recognition of Black women at the Chicago World’s Fair continued other movements that challenged gender and racial inequity. These movements included the protests around the exclusion of Black women at the 1884 New Orleans Cotton Centennial: nine years before Wells gathered fellow activists to create The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, Black women’s groups and activists organized an event called the Colored Women’s Congress to advocate for and showcase the accomplishments of the Black women left out of the 1884 Cotton Centennial. The Congress featured speeches and presentations on the subjects of education, women’s rights, health, and more. The passion shown by the Colored Women’s Congress of New Orleans in 1884 was no less powerful than the passion displayed by Wells and her associates in the publication of their pamphlet. The unwavering determination for equal representation would only grow in strength, and take up arms time and time again, against the racism that plagued the World’s Fairs of the 19th century.

Section Five: Anti-Lynching and Literary Works

In 1892, when Wells was 30 years old, she published what has been argued to be her most important writing; a pamphlet entitled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” This essay spoke on how white men justified the murder of Black men by claiming the role of protectors of white women, and that the often-used charge of rape was, in many cases, a cover to punish Black men who in any way challenged the social, political, or economic status quo of the South (Schechter 275). After receiving a death threat because of her newspaper criticism, Wells left for the North where she continued her critique of the South. 

Some of the best evidence of Wells’ scarcely documented personal life dates from the 1880s. Her diary, dating from December 1885 to September 1887, provides details of her life during this period and expresses her anger at the racial violence and injustice directed at Black communities nationwide.

The Ida B. Wells Barnett Papers provides a highly useful and informative source of information about Wells’ life and work. It consists of Wells’ correspondence, the manuscript of her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, diaries, copies of articles and speeches by Wells, articles and accounts about Wells, newspaper clippings, and photographs (Black Woman’s Suffrage).

Works Cited

“Banner with motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.” Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

Kautz, Malissa. “Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” First Wave Feminisms, 12 Apr. 2019. Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

Paddon, Anna R., and Sally Turner. “African Americans and the World’s Columbian Exposition.” Illinois Historical Journal, vol. 88, no. 1, 1995, pp. 19–36. JSTOR, Accessed 7 May 2023.

Schechter, Patricia A. “Wells-Barnett, Ida B.: (1862–1931) Journalist and Social Activist.” The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 24: Race, edited by Thomas E. Holt et al., University of North Carolina Press, 2013, pp. 274–76. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Apr. 2023.

“Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), wearing “Martyred Negro Soldiers” button, between 1917–1919. Facsimile. Ida B. Wells Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library (061.03.00).” Library of Congress. Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

“The article in the Chicago Daily Tribune about Wells winning her case at the trial level.” TN History for Kids. Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B., 1862-1931. Crusade for Justice: the Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. University of Chicago Press, 1972. Print.