Ida B. Wells, who became a famous African American journalist, entered this world on July 16, 1862, three years before slavery was abolished. Her childhood years were lived during the period of Reconstruction. Having only been in bondage for the first three years of her life, she had no direct memory of slavery but saw the aftermath of it on the wounds of her mother’s beaten back.
She grew up in Holly Springs, Mississippi and was one of eight children born to James and Elizabeth Wells. At the tender age of 16, she found herself the head of her household, after losing her parents and baby brother to yellow fever. In addition to taking care of her family, she taught school and continued her studies. In 1881, Ida and her two youngest sisters moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with her aunt where Ida continued to teach. By this time, Reconstruction was over as the northern troops, planted in the south at the end of the civil war to oversee the proper freeing of slaves, left in 1877.
Prior to starting her job as a teacher in Memphis, while waiting to take the exam, Ms. Wells accepted a job in Woodstock. On the train ride to Woodstock, the conductor told her she had to give up the seat she paid for in the first-class ladies’ car and move to the smoking section with the other African Americans. Ida refused and she was forcibly removed from the train. While she won the civil suit she filed, it was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
In 1891, at the height of the Jim Crow era, Ida lost her job as a teacher after criticizing conditions and under-funding in the Memphis schools. During this time, she wrote a few articles for a local newspaper and later decided to make it her career. She invested in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and was later named its editor. She was the first female editor and co-owner of a Black owned newspaper.
In 1892, a friend of Ms. Wells, Thomas Moss, a Memphis letter carrier and grocer, along with two of his friends, was lynched by a mob after a confrontation with rival white grocers. Shocked and horrified by this action, Ida wrote an article in the newspaper urging African Americans to move out of Memphis for their safety. It was at this point that she began to focus on the increased lynchings in the United States. She set out on a courageous journey to highlight the numerous lynching of Blacks, mostly men. One of her editorials resulted in the burning of her office by an angry group of white people who resented her exposing the lynchings. Fortunately, she was in New York at the time where she decided to remain. She continued her writings and wrote an extensive article on lynching in America for the New York Age, a newspaper owned by an ex-slave. By the 1890’s, white lynching became a terrorist campaign to solidify and emphasize white control in the South.
In 1893, Wells published A Red Record, a personal examination of lynching in America. She also lectured abroad to garner support from reform-minded white people.
In 1898, Ida Wells brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House where she called for President McKinley to make reforms. She also became an active fighter for Black women’s suffrage. Her work in this arena played a crucial role in the victory of woman suffrage in Illinois with the passage of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Act on June 25, 1913.
Ms. Wells is also considered as one of the original founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). However, she left the organization over philosophical differences. Many African American journalists to this day consider Ms. Wells the mother of journalism and honor her for her bravery, determination, and skillful reporting.
Wells died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931, leaving a long legacy of political and social activism. In 2020 she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific, vicious violence against African American lynchings.
Womenshistory.org: Ida B. Wells
Nps.gov: Ida B. Wells