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.