Ida B. Wells: Journalist, Activist, American Hero
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
“I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said."– Ida B. Wells
By Morgan Willis
Starting this blog was a big leap of faith for me. During this time in quarantine, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to expand my personal brand and reach new audiences. I was researching for topics and came across a short Madam Noire article about Black Women entrepreneurs in the early 1900’s. You could imagine the names on the list: Madame CJ. Walker, Janice Bryant Howroyd, Edomnia Lewis, etc. Amongst this list of names is, of course, Ida B. Wells. The mention of her legacy alongside the legacy’s lawyers, doctors, beauty moguls, and other innovators, revealed to me the power of her work during her lifetime. Ida B. Wells was an educator, civil rights activist, a feminist, abolitionist, and trailblazer, and it all stems from her work as a journalist.
Ida the Educator
Ida B Wells was born as a slave Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862 during the civil war. At the wars end, six months after Ida’s birth, her parents became active in the republican party during Reconstruction era politics and instilled in her the importance of education. Her father, James Wells, was a member of the Freedman’s Aid Society and help start Shaw University for newly freed slaves, where Ida would later receive her early education. In 1878 at the age of 16, Wells lost both her parents and one of her younger siblings to a yellow fever epidemic in her hometown. Ida was left to raise her other siblings. She convinced a country school administrator that she was 18 and landed a job as an educator and eventually moved her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee.
Ida the Journalist
In 1882, Wells continued her education at Fisk University in Nashville. She began to write about issues of race and politics in the south, and many of her articles were published Black newspapers and periodicals under the alias, “Iola.” She became an owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and an owner of the Free Speech. She held her position as an educator in a segregated school in Memphis, while working as a journalist and publisher. She used her publications to shed light on the conditions of Black only schools in the south, which would eventually result in her losing her job as a teacher. In May of 1884, Wells would experience an injustice that would ignite her fire as an activist.
Ida the Activist
Long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Wells was forcibly removed from a train, after refusing to leave her fist class seats, which she purchased, and move to the African American train car. She sued the railroad company, winning $500, which would be later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Ida began championing the cases of injustice against other newly freed slaves in the South.
In 1892, three African American men – Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart – were lynched after killing three white vandals attempting to destroy their store. Wells wrote newspaper articles objurgating the lynching of her friends and the murders of other African Americans. She spent months traveling throughout the South, gathering lynching stories and incidents from African Americans to write and publish in her newspaper. This would enrage some of the city’s white citizens. A white mob destroyed the office of her newspaper, damaging all of her work and equipment. Luckily Wells was traveling to New York at the time of the attack. They threatened to kill her if she ever returned to Memphis. However, Ida would continue her work in the North, writing an in-depth report on the lynching in America for the African American run paper, the New York Age. In 1893, Wells published A Red Record, a personal examination of the lynchings in America. She later wrote and circulated a pamphlet entitled, “The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition,” after African American exhibitors were banned. Ida’s anti-lynching campaign would eventually reach the White House, resulting in reforms by President William Mckinley.
Ida the Founder In 1896, Wells established the National Association of Colored Women. She was also alongside W.E.B. Dubosi and Mary Church Terrell, and other in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ida also established the first African American Kindergarten program in her community. She worked tirelessly for women’s rights during the women’s suffrage movement and campaigned for the end to discriminatory hiring practice for government jobs.
I always toy with the idea of how much of an impact I can make on my community and other young women looking to make a personal impact. At times the journey of a young black woman journalist in American society can be discouraging because of all of the many obstacles we face on a daily basis. Ida B. Wells story is truly inspiring because of her relentless effort to make a change through her use of words.
About the Author:
Morgan Willis is a future public relations professional in the DFW metroplex. Morgan is studying journalism with a concentration in PR at the University of North Texas with an expected graduation date of December 2020.