As a young woman growing up during Reconstruction, Ida B. Wells experienced Jim Crow segregation when she was barred from travel on a train in the whites-only section. It was not until she observed the growing practice of violence toward African Americans that she began her crusade to stop lynching. This video shows Wells grow from school teacher to journalist to founding member of the NAACP.
Though she had many roles, including teacher, activist, journalist, editor and women’s rights advocate, Ida B. Wells is most widely known as a famed leader of the anti-lynching movement.
Wells was born in 1862 to former slaves who became members of the Republican Party after the Civil War and were activists during the era of Reconstruction. Wells was only fourteen when her parents died from yellow fever, but she still managed to graduate from Rusk College, an unusual occurrence for a woman of any background at that time, while caring for her eight siblings. As a young woman, Wells was expelled from a train when she refused to give up her seat in the "whites-only" section. Wells sued and won her case against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in court but it was later overturned on appeal. Disheartened but not defeated, Wells felt an even greater urgency to expose racial injustice. She soon had her opportunity as the co-founder and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, an influential African-American newspaper.
As a journalist, Wells documented the harsh treatment of African Americans, writing pamphlets that revealed to the world the horrors of white violence toward people of color. After Wells relocated from Memphis to Chicago, she remained steadfast in her pursuit of justice for African Americans. While in the relative safety of Chicago, she developed relationships with other activists that helped to further her identity as a progressive leader. She partnered with a number of black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, to boycott the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 in an effort to bring awareness to the violence African Americans suffered in the South. In Chicago, she began to write for the Chicago Conservator, where she met Ferdinand Barnett, the Conservator’s editor and an influential Chicago attorney widely known as an advocate of racial justice. Wells married Barnett in 1895. The couple had four children, and today their family home is a National Historic Landmark.
As a writer, Wells published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, documenting the forced acts of humiliation, terror and murder inflicted on southern African Americans with no legal consequences to the white perpetrators. In addition to standing up to white supremacy, Wells also advocated for women’s right to vote. She was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and many other organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women. Wells took her civil-rights campaign to the national and international stage through a lecture series that exposed the tortures inflicted on African Americans. She continued her fight for black civil and political rights and an end to lynching until shortly before she died.
NAARATOR: In 1884, Ida B. Wells, a young teacher from Memphis, was quietly reading in a first-class car when the conductor ordered her to move to the Jim Crow car.
IDA B. WELLS: I refused, saying the forward car was a smoker, I proposed to stay. He tried to drag me out of my seat but the moment he caught hold of my arm, I fastened my teeth on the back of his hand.
PAULA GIDDINGS: They are able to get her out of her seat. But she refuses to go in that accommodation car. And she gets off the train walks back to town with her dress torn, her hat now askew.
She will sue the Chesapeake and Ohio. She takes this mighty corporation to court. And she does prevail in the end because the judge does says that indeed she was a lady. She's a school teacher. She was dressed the way she's supposed to dress. She acted accordingly.
NARRATOR: But the victory was short-lived. The verdict was overturned by a Tennessee appeals court.
IDA B. WELLS: I had firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged. If it were possible, I would gather the race in my arms and fly away with them. God, is there no redress, no peace nor justice for us? Teach us what to do, for I am sorely, bitterly disgusted.
PAULA GIDDINGS: She said I wanted so badly to do something great for my people, and I thought I had. But now, with this, I feel that justice is no longer on our side.
NARRATOR: Inspired by her personal confrontation with Jim Crow, Wells decided to fight for the rights of all black people. She taught school by day and at night wrote newspaper articles under the pen name "Iola."
NARRATOR: In the late 1880s, when the Tennessee legislature moved to take the vote away from blacks, Wells attacked.
IDA B. WELLS: The dailies of our city say that whites must rule this country. But this is an expression without a thought. The old southern voice that made the Negroes jump and run to their holes like rats, is told to shut up, for the Negro of today is not the same as Negroes were thirty years ago.
SONG: Swing Low Sweet Chariot
NARRATOR: But a black man or woman standing up for equal justice in 1892 was taking a serious risk. On the night of March 9, when Wells was out of town, her friend Tom Moss and two others were jailed for defending themselves against several white men who had attacked Moss's grocery store.
Masked vigilantes dragged Moss and his two friends from their cells to a deserted railroad yard.
Before he died, Moss cried out, "Tell my people to flee. There is no justice here." This lynching – A term that came to be applied to any mob killing of blacks – disheartened Wells.
PAULA GIDDINGS: When she had come back to Memphis, she saw that the community was absolutely devastated and so was she. No one knew quite what to do. But when she read those words, she said, this is going to be her mission as well. And she begins to talk. Begins to tell Black Memphians, there is no justice for you here. The system is not working for us. No one is trying to get these killers of our young men, and it is one we should go.
NARRATOR: And go they did. At least 6,000 black Memphis residents would heed Well’s call to leave. It was the beginning of an exodus that in the coming decades would number in the millions. The murder of her friend also opened her eyes to who the true targets of the lynch mob were.
KEN GOINGS: When her three friends were lynched ...she began to realize that even black people, middle class black people, were...were...could...could be victims of that. And she talks about how until that happened, she had believed that those excesses, what she called excesses against the race, were only directed against those people who had perhaps done something to deserve it.
IDA B. WELLS: This opened my eyes to what lynching really was - an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and "keep the niggers down."
PAULA GIDDINGS: Ida Wells is one voice, that says that some of these assumptions of black people, that we can actually come to some negotiated settlement with whites in this period is a false assumption. You have to fight. And that the only we were going to do it is to fight.
NARRATOR: Ida B. Wells would eventually leave Memphis for Chicago. There she began her crusade against the murder of Southern blacks which she would continue for the rest of her life.
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