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IDA B. WELLS (African-American journalist / civil-rights activist, 1862-1931)
Born to slave parents in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, Ida Bell Wells grew up to become a gutsy journalist and a pioneer civil-rights activist who launched a virtual one-woman crusade against the vicious practice of Lynching (a murderous mob action taken by Whites in the decades following Emancipation as a form of intimidation and social control mainly of newly-free Blacks). In her early 20s, after asserting her place in but being forcibly removed from a railway car, Wells went on to co-own and write for a Memphis newspaper, The Free Speech, and to write passionate editorials which resulted in both death threats made upon her plus an act of arson that destroyed the business.
In school the young Ida favoured reading Shakespeare and The Bible, but at the age of 16 both of her parents died during a yellow-fever epidemic, leaving Ida to care for her six younger siblings. She obtained a teaching position at a rural school which paid her $25 per month. Later on, while her brothers remained in Holly Springs to train as carpenter’s apprentices, she moved with her sisters to her aunt’s home near Memphis, Tennessee. She began to teach in Shelby County, and also to attend Fisk University to broaden her teaching skills. It was in May of 1884 that the discriminatory railway-car incident occurred, and some time after that the name “Iola” began to appear in print in black publications as the author of articles about race and politics in the South. Miss Wells had been using the pseudonym for less than a year when, in 1887, she attended the National Afro-American Press Convention and was named the most prominent correspondent for the American black press.
Miss Wells did not shy away from controversy when she wrote for Free Speech. An anonymous article she penned was critical of Memphis’s separate but not-so-equal schools. She described rundown buildings and teachers who had received little more education than their students. Such revelations irked members of the local Board of Education. They also took issue with her claim that a member of the all-white board was having an affair with a black teacher. The ensuing uproar cost Wells her teaching job.
Yet she was now prepared to focus more fully on the newspaper and what its very name – Free Speech – entailed. She gradually earned enough to purchase a half-share of Free Speech, and while her partner, J.L. Fleming, handled business matters, Miss Wells handled the editorial and subscription departments, and under her leadership circulation increased from 1,500 to 4,000. Readers continued to rely on Free Speech to tackle controversial subjects, even when that meant speaking out against blacks as well as whites — even when it meant challenging the widely-accepted practice of Lynching.
When word reached Miss Wells that her friend Tom Moss, the father of her goddaughter, had been lynched, she learned a great deal more about the horrific practice than she could’ve imagined. Until that time, Wells, like most other people, knew that there were usually two reasons why a black man was lynched: he was accused of raping a white woman, or he was accused of killing a white man. Yet Moss’s “crime” was that he successfully competed with a white grocer, and for this reason he and his partners were murdered. Wells now understood that lynchings were not being used to weed out criminals but to enforce the ugly values of White Supremacy. So, in a series of scathing editorials in Free Speech, she urged Memphis’ black populace to boycott the city’s new streetcar line and to pack up their belongings and move out West if they could manage it.
African Americans heeded Wells’ pleas and began leaving Memphis by the hundreds. Two pastors of large black churches took their entire congregations to Oklahoma, and others soon followed. Those who stayed behind boycotted white businesses, creating financial hardships for commercial establishments as well as for the public transportation system. The city’s papers attempted to dissuade blacks from leaving by reporting on the hostile American Indians and dangerous diseases awaiting them out West. To counter their claims, Wells spent three weeks traveling in Oklahoma and published a firsthand account of the actual conditions. She was fast becoming a target for angry white men and women, so she was advised by her friends to ease up on her editorials. Instead, though, she decided to carry a pistol. In later years she was to recall: “[I had] already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, that might even up the score a little bit.”
After the murders of Moss and his partners, Wells spent some months investigating other lynchings across the South. Traveling from Texas to Virginia, she interviewed both whites and blacks in order to discern truth from rumour. Margaret Truman has written in her book Women of Courage: “To call this dangerous work is an understatement. Imagine a lone black woman in a small town in Alabama or Mississippi, asking questions that no one wanted to answer about a crime that half the whites in the town might’ve committed.” Miss Wells was to learn that rape was far from being the only crime lodged against victims of lynch mobs. Indeed, men had been lynched for “being saucy.”
In May of 1892, an article appeared in Free Speech stating that “nobody in this section believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” Many white citizens of Memphis did not appreciate the implication that some of their women might prefer the company of black men, and the editor of one Memphis newspaper declared that the “black wretch who had written that foul lie should be tied to a stake at the corner of Main and Madison Streets, a pair of tailor’s shears used on him, and he should then be burned at the stake.”
Wells, en route to New York City and unaware of the impact of her latest anonymous editorial, did not discover its fallout until reaching her destination. Fellow journalist T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age, informed her that a mob of white men had marched into the Free Speech offices, demolished the printing press, and set fire to the building. Fleming, Wells’s partner, had escaped just before the attack and was in hiding. The angry group had promised that both editors would be lynched if they ever again set foot again in Memphis. Wells received telegrams and letters from friends begging her not to return. They told her that there were instructions to kill her on sight.
And so, Miss Wells remained in New York and accepted a job from Fortune at the New York Age. Among the first stories she wrote for the newspaper was a front-page spread detailing names, dates, and locations of several dozen lynchings. In some cases, the lynchers were prominent members of society who could have easily gone through proper legal channels had there been actual evidence of their victims’ guilt.
That particular issue of the Age sold 10,000 copies, yet it reached a predominantly black audience — not the northern white progressives Wells knew she needed to move to action if she wanted to stop the brutalities of Lynching. In 1893, therefore, she embarked upon a speaking tour of the British Isles and Europe, and it was in those overseas nations that she found white people who were more receptive to her activist concerns. Via this circuitous route, Miss Wells’ message – with the help of various newspaper editors and organizations such as the London-based Anti-Lynching Committee and the Society of Brotherhood of Man – made its way back to the United States. Some American newspaper editorials continued to attack Wells, referring to her as “the slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress.” And she faced the opposition of both conservative whites and upper-class blacks who feared any threat to the security of their positions.
“Home” after her overseas speaking tour, Wells moved to Chicago in 1893 or 1894, and began working for The Conservator, a black newspaper founded and edited by a lawyer named Ferdinand Barnett. When blacks were excluded from participating in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (held in Chicago), she teamed up with Barnett and Frederick Douglass to compile a booklet entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not Represented in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” Thousands of copies of it were distributed during the fair. Miss Wells also published A Red Record, which recounted three years’ worth of American lynchings, and in order to avoid any charges of bias, she gathered all of her data from white-published sources, primarily the Chicago Tribune.
In 1895, at the age of 33, Miss Wells married Barnett, who shared her passion for civil rights. They remained in Chicago, and Mrs. Wells-Barnett divided her time between raising four children and working on various causes: the anti-lynching crusade; establishing kindergartens in the black district of Chicago; and – with reformer Jane Addams – protesting successfully against a plan to segregate the city’s schools.
Ida Wells-Barnett – now a wife and mother – kept on speaking out against discrimination…
She denounced the restriction of blacks to the backs of buses and theatre balconies, plus their exclusion from organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). In 1909, Wells-Barnett attended the conference of “radical” activists that led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Perhaps not surprisingly – given her feisty and energetic character – she resigned not long afterwards, frustrated that the organization was not committed enough to militant action. Some years earlier, she had quit the Afro-American Council in protest against Booker T. Washington and his policy of “accommodation”.
In the last decades of her passionate life, Wells-Barnett devoted most of her time and energy to various civic and political activities in Chicago. From 1913 until 1916, for instance, she worked as an adult probation officer. She also remained busy with club work and founded the first African-American women’s suffrage organization. She even ran for state senator in the 1930 elections, though she was easily defeated.
Imagine if Ida Wells-Barnett had been able to see into the future?
She might then have seen how much she influenced the civil-rights movement of the 1960s – and a new era in race relations – with her own battles against discrimination all those decades earlier. Ida Wells-Barnett died of kidney disease in 1931 at the age of sixty-nine. But she is remembered here and now in the 21st century as a courageous pioneer for truth and justice – and as an African-American woman of whom we should all be proud.
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The above biographical essay and commentary has been edited for length. It first appeared in Americans Who Tell The Truth: Models of Courageous Citizenship © The Gale Group
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Lynching as a subject for poetry: two examples from poets Lucille Clifton and Sterling Allen Brown:
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Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)
The Photograph: A Lynching
Is it the cut glass
of their eyes
looking up toward
the new gnarled branch
of the black man
hanging from a tree?
Is it the white milk pleated
collar of the woman
smiling toward the camera,
her fingers loose around
a christian cross drooping
against her breast?
Is it all of us
captured by history into an
accurate album? Will we be
required to view it together
under a gathering sky?
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Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989)
Let Us Suppose
Let us suppose him differently placed
In wider fields than these bounded by bayous
And the fringes of moss-hung trees
Over which, in lazy spirals, the carancros [carrion crows] soar and dip.
Let us suppose these horizons pushed farther,
So that his eager mind,
His restless senses, his swift eyes,
Could glean more than the sheaves he stored
Time and time again:
Let us suppose him far away from here.
Or let us, keeping him here, suppose him
More submissive, less ready for the torrent of hot Cajan speech,
The clenched fist, the flushed face,
The proud scorn and the spurting anger;
Let us suppose him with his hat crumpled in his hand,
The proper slant to his neck, the eyes abashed,
Let us suppose his tender respect for his honour
Calloused, his debt to himself outlawed.
Let us suppose him what he could never be.
Let us suppose him less thrifty
Less the hustler from early morning until first dark,
Let us suppose his corn weedy,
His cotton rusty, scantily fruited, and his fat mules poor.
His cane a sickly yellow
Like his white neighbour’s.
Let us suppose his burnt brick colour,
His shining hair thrown back from his forehead,
His stalwart shoulders, his lean hips,
His gently fused patois of Cajan, Indian, African,
Let us suppose these less the dragnet
To her, who might have been less lonesome
Less driven by Louisiana heat, by lone flat days,
And less hungry.
Let us suppose his full-throated laugh
Less repulsive to the crabbed husband,
Let us suppose his swinging strides
Less of an insult to the half-alive scarecrow
Of the neighbouring fields:
Let us suppose him less fermenting to hate.
Let us suppose that there had been
In this tiny forgotten parish, among these lost bayous,
No imperative need
Of preserving unsullied,
Let us suppose –
Oh, let us suppose him alive.
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“Let Us Suppose” was first published in the September 1935 issue of Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life.
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Sterling Allen Brown (1901-1989)
“Ma Rainey” (1932)
When Ma Rainey
Comes to town,
Folks from anyplace
From Cape Girardeau,
Flocks in to hear
Ma do her stuff;
Comes flivverin’ in,
Or ridin’ mules,
Or packed in trains,
Picknickin’ fools. . . .
That’s what it’s like,
Fo’ miles on down,
To New Orleans delta
An’ Mobile town,
When Ma hits
Dey comes to hear Ma Rainey from de little river settlements,
From blackbottorn cornrows and from lumber camps;
Dey stumble in de hall, jes a-laughin’ an’ a-cacklin’,
Cheerin’ lak roarin’ water, lak wind in river swamps.
An’ some jokers keeps deir laughs a-goin’ in de crowded aisles,
An’ some folks sits dere waitin’ wid deir aches an’ miseries,
Till Ma comes out before dem, a-smilin’ gold-toofed smiles
An’ Long Boy ripples minors on de black an’ yellow keys.
O Ma Rainey,
Sing yo’ song;
Now you’s back
Whah you belong,
Git way inside us,
Keep us strong. . . .
O Ma Rainey,
Li’l an’ low;
Sing us ’bout de hard luck
Roun’ our do’;
Sing us ’bout de lonesome road
We mus’ go. . .
I talked to a fellow, an’ the fellow say,
“She jes’ catch hold of us, somekindaway.
She sang Backwater Blues one day:
‘It rained fo’ days an’ de skies was dark as night,
Trouble taken place in de lowlands at night.
‘Thundered an’ lightened an’ the storm begin to roll
Thousan’s of people ain’t got no place to go.
‘Den I went an’ stood upon some high ol’ lonesome hill,
An’ looked down on the place where I used to live.’
An’ den de folks, dey natchally bowed dey heads an’ cried,
Bowed dey heavy heads, shet dey moufs up tight an’ cried,
An’ Ma lef’ de stage, an’ followed some de folks outside.”
Dere wasn’t much more de fellow say:
She jes’ gits hold of us dataway.
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“Ma Rainey” from The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, edited by Sterling A. Brown. © 1932
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