In honor of Black History Month, we reflect on the lasting impact that activist and journalist Ida B. Wells had on the women’s suffrage movement and the anti-lynching movement.
Ida was born into slavery in 1862 in Mississippi. With the end of the Civil War in 1865, slavery was abolished, and the Reconstruction Era began. She was influenced by her parents, who became activists during this time.
When Ida was 16, her parents and baby brother died from yellow fever, and she was left to raise her younger siblings. She supported the family through her work as a teacher, although she was fired from her teaching position when she spoke out against segregation. She moved to Memphis in 1881.
A Writer and Journalist
Ida’s first love was writing, and her dedicated skill of research and gathering information propelled her into the world of journalism. She became the owner of two newspapers, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech. A New York Times article by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones referred to Ida as a “muckraking journalist” in 2017.
Following the brutal lynching of several friends, Ida began traveling throughout the south and collecting data and information. In a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases, her research provided rare data on the practice of lynching and its impact on the African-American community.
Ida’s activism grew more robust in 1884 when she purchased a first-class train ticket and was told she needed to sit in the cab reserved for African-Americans. She was kicked off the train for refusing to give up her first-class seat. She brought a lawsuit against the train company, which she won in a local court. Eventually, the case was overturned in federal court.
While living in Memphis, her articles in newspapers and journals enraged the white locals. In 1892, a mob destroyed her newspaper equipment, burned her writings, and threatened her life. She then left Memphis and moved to New York to escape threats on her life.
A Powerful Voice for Black Activism
When Ida married Ferdinand Barnett in 1895, the wedding made the front page of the New York Times, which was evidence of the importance of this remarkable woman. Following her marriage, she opted to keep her maiden name and was known as both Ida B. Wells and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
While living in New York, she worked tirelessly to further the cause of black activism, working to build a better world for the black community. She continued to write about the horrors of lynching and published exposes. She eventually moved to Chicago and became a powerful voice for black activism and civil rights.
Ida fought against racism, sexism, and the violent, abhorrent acts committed against African-American men and women throughout her life.
A Leader in the Suffrage Movement
Ida was the founder of the National Association for Colored Women and the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago. She inspired many through her courageous efforts to fight for civil rights and women’s suffrage.
Ida and the other suffragists helped get the Illinois Equal Suffrage Act passed and eventually the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. While the amendment gave women the right to vote, it excluded women of color. Ida continued in her pursuit of equal justice for all.
Ida B. Wells died in 1931, long before her dreams for equal rights and anti-lynching legislation would come true. It wasn’t until February 2020 that H.R. 35, known as the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, was passed by congress. This act made lynching a federal hate crime. Congress member George White (NC) first proposed an anti-lynching bill in 1900, and it would take 120 years and almost 200 attempts to see it come to fruition. This bill might not have been possible if it wasn’t for Ida and her commitment to exposing the horrors of lynching.
Ida was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for her outstanding investigative reporting of the violence committed against African Americans. She is remembered as a true activist, feminist, and amazing woman who lived her life fighting for justice.
WOMEN’S HISTORY: Ida B. Wells – Video in context. https://en.videoencontexto.com/2021/02/womens-history-ida-b-wells_0wj_u3e3h_4/
Mobley, T. (2021, April 9). Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Anti-lynching and the White House. The White House Historical Association. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/ida-b-wells-barnett-anti-lynching-and-the-white-house
National Park Service. (2020, December 30). Ida B. Wells. https://www.nps.gov/people/idabwells.htm
Norwood, A.R. (2017). Ida B. Wells-Barnett. National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ida-b-wells-barnett
Hannah-Jones, Nikole, “When Ida B. Wells Married, It Was a Page One Story,” New York Times, (2017), www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/weddings/165-years-of-wedding-announcements/ida-wells-wedding