The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ida B. Wells gets her due as a Black suffragist who rejected movement’s racism

A man looks at a striking mosaic image of Ida B. Wells at Union Station in Washington, D.C. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Her image is arresting. Hundreds of people walking through Washington’s Union Station this week paused to look at the huge photo mosaic of anti-lynching crusader and suffragist Ida B. Wells-Barnett on the marble floor.

The portrait, designed by visual artist Helen Marshall using thousands of smaller photos of women who fought for the right to vote, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.

A mother's letter, a son's choice and the incredible moment women won the right to vote

Colleen Shogan, vice chair of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, which organized the display, said it was “a strategic decision” to highlight Wells-Barnett.

“She was a suffragist, a civil rights activist, an anti-lynching journalist who helped spawn the anti-lynching movement in the United States,” she said. “We hope people will learn not only about Ida B. Wells — her story is impressive — but also learn the story of the thousands of other women depicted in the mosaic.”

Our Story: Portraits of Change,” on display at Union Station until Aug. 28, includes Sojourner Truth, an enslaved woman who freed herself before becoming an abolitionist, a freedom fighter and suffragist; Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and political activist who founded the National Council of Negro Women; and Mary Eliza Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women.

It also tells the story of Zitkála-Šá, also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, “a Yankton Dakota Sioux writer and political activist who fought for women’s suffrage and Native American rights,” according to the commission, and Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, “the first Chinese woman in the United States to earn her doctorate and an advocate for the rights of women and the Chinese community in America.”

Wells-Barnett, better known by her maiden name Ida B. Wells, was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who won a posthumous Pulitzer in 2020 for “courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”

She also confronted racism in the suffrage movement and did not flinch.

Wells-Barnett, who was born enslaved in July 16, 1862, in Mississippi, wrote that she believed the power of the vote would help protect Black people from the horrors of oppression, lynching and racial terror.

“Wells-Barnett traveled internationally, shedding light on lynching to foreign audiences,” according to the National Women’s History Museum. “Abroad, she openly confronted white women in the suffrage movement who ignored lynching. Because of her stance, she was often ridiculed and ostracized by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States. Nevertheless, Wells-Barnett remained active in the women’s rights movement.”

Wells-Barnett created a suffrage group for Black women in Chicago. She wrote in her autobiography “Crusade for Justice” that when she saw “that we were likely to have a restricted suffrage, and the white women of the organization were working like beavers to bring it about, I made another effort to get our women interested. With the assistance of one or two of my suffrage friends, I organized what afterward became known as the Alpha Suffrage Club. The women who joined were extremely interested when I showed them that we could use our vote for the advantage of ourselves and our race.”

The Black sorority that faced racism in the suffrage movement but refused to walk away

In 1913, Wells-Barnett traveled from Chicago to Washington to attend a suffrage parade, organized by suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, (NAWSA). The association debated the demand by Southern women that Black women march in the back.

Paul argued the parade should be segregated by race, believing White women would refuse to march alongside Black women.

“As far as I can see, we must have a white procession, or a Negro procession, or no procession at all,” Paul told an editor in 1913.

Host Hannah Jewell explains how a new generation finally won women the right to vote in the third episode of ”The Fight“ from The Lily and The Washington Post. (Video: The Washington Post)

On March 3, 1913, one day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, the marchers gathered.

“Clad in a white cape astride a white horse, lawyer Inez Milholland led the great woman suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital,” according to the Library of Congress. “Behind her stretched a long line with nine bands, four mounted brigades, three heralds, about twenty-four floats, and more than 5,000 marchers.”

The women were jeered and assaulted as they walked.

Wells-Barnett had no intention of abiding by the rules segregating the parade. She stood on the sidelines until the marchers from Chicago passed, then fearlessly, she stepped to the front of the procession.

“I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition,” she wrote later. “I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune published a photo of Wells marching up front.

“Mrs. Ida Wells Barnett, a brilliant” Black woman, “who is one of the leaders of her race and has lectured in the cause of the Negro man and woman throughout Europe and America, had come from Chicago to the parade with the Illinois delegation of women but some of the marchers from states further south had objected to her presence,” according a 1913 Detroit Free Press story.

“The Illinois women want me to march in their section,” she told the reporter, “and I shall. Illinois is Lincoln’s state, you know. I don’t believe Lincoln’s state is going to permit Alabama or Georgia or another state to begin to dictate to it now. As Illinois comes along I’ll join them.’ And Mrs. Barnett did.”

Read more Retropolis:

The Black sorority that faced racism in the suffrage movement but refused to walk away

She was the glamorous face of suffrage. Then she became its martyr.

Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting when women couldn’t. Now Trump will pardon her.

The suffragists beaten and tortured for demanding the vote outside White House