After Ida B. Wells published a column on May 21, 1892, denouncing “the old thread bare lie” that lynching was used to “protect white womanhood,” a white mob marched to her office in Memphis, destroyed her presses and left a warning they would kill Wells if she tried to publish her newspaper again.
Wells, who was on a business trip to the East Coast at the time, did not flinch upon hearing of the threat.
Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
“I had been warned repeatedly by my own people that something would happen if I did not cease harping on the lynching of three months before,” Wells wrote in her memoir, “Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.” “I had expected that happening to come when I was at home. I had bought a pistol the first thing after [my friend] Tom Moss was lynched, because I expected some cowardly retaliation from the lynchers.”
Then one of the most fearless women in U.S. history, who stood less than five feet tall, wrote:
“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”
On Thursday, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., became the first in the country dedicated to more than 4,000 lynching victims. It also honors Wells, along with other black women who risked their lives in the fight against racial terror.
The memorial, which includes more than 800 steel monuments bearing the names of thousands of lynching victims, contains a reflection space dedicated to Wells, who with her incisive investigations, detailed reporting and meticulous data revealed lynchings’ barbarism.
“For more than 40 years, Ida B. Wells was one of the most fearless and one of the most respected women in the United States,” wrote historian John Hope Franklin in the foreword to her memoir. “Few defects in American society escaped her notice and her outrage. … She was perhaps the first person to recite the horrors of lynching in lurid detail.”
During her travels to England in the late 1890s, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, known by her maiden name Ida B. Wells, spoke to audiences about the horrors of lynching during an international crusade to shine light on the violence and racism of America.
“She became nearly as well-known in England as she was in the United States,” Franklin wrote, “for she was determined that the entire world should know her native land for what it really was.”
Wells was born enslaved in July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Miss., during the Civil War, five months before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Her mother, Elizabeth Wells, who had been sold from a plantation in Virginia to one farther south, taught her about maintaining dignity in the face of dehumanizing racial oppression. Her father, James Wells, was the son of a carpenter who was a slave owner. He was often described as a “race man,” advocating for the rights of newly freed black people and working with the Republican Party during Reconstruction.
Wells-Barnett, who was the oldest of eight children, grew up in Holly Springs and attended Rust College. After her parents died during a yellow fever epidemic in 1878, Wells returned home to take care of her siblings. She passed the teachers exam at the age of 16 and began teaching in a one-room school house in Holly Springs. A few years later, at the recommendation of her aunt, Wells moved to Memphis.
One day in May 1884, Wells-Barnett was riding a train in Memphis when a white conductor on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway ordered her to move to the segregated Jim Crow car, according to “Crusade for Justice.” Having bought a first-class ticket to ride in the ladies’ car, Wells refused.
The conductor grabbed Wells, trying to force her off the train.
“The moment he caught hold of my arm, I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggage man and another man to help him, and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”
She was thrown off the train, but she refused to bend to the injustice. She sued the railroad for forcing black people to ride in “separate but unequal coaches.” She won the case. In December 1884, a local court awarded her $500 in damages. Her lawsuit was celebrated across the country. But the railroad appealed, and three years later the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the lower-court ruling.
The ruling left her with a profound disappointment in the justice system.
“I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people generally,” Wells wrote in her diary, which was published as “The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells: An Intimate Portrait of the Activist as a Young Woman.” “I have firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now, if it were possible, would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them.”
Wells continued teaching in Memphis, trying to help black people obtain an education. And she began writing columns about her lawsuit. Her articles appeared in church newspapers and black weeklies.
Soon, she was offered a regular column in The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, an African American newspaper in Memphis, where she used the money she had saved as a teacher to become a part owner, according to her memoir.
She wrote columns under the name “Iola.”
Her anti-lynching campaign would begin in full force five years later, after three of her friends — Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart — opened a grocery in direct competition with a white-owned store in Memphis, according to an Equal Justice Initiative report.
The men were arrested and killed by a white mob. Devastated and outraged by the murders, Wells began her own investigation.
“Like most other Americans, she believed that lynching victims committed crimes, especially rape,” according to the “Historical Scholars” section of “African American Criminological Thought,” published by the State University of New York Press. “However, the three blacks lynched in Memphis had not committed such crimes. Rather they were victims of a scheme by a white grocer in the vicinity who was losing business to them.”
Wells came to the conclusion that many of the rape stories were false, prompting her to write the now-famous editorial published May 21, 1892: “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women.”
The Daily Commercial newspaper in Memphis responded with an editorial, according to the University of Chicago Library collection of Well’s papers: “The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence to the wonderful patience of Southern whites.”
Wells responded by urging black people to get out of Memphis:
“The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival,” she wrote in an editorial, according to “The Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.”
She argued that the city “will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood.”
“For nearly three months, black people left Memphis ‘by the scores and hundreds,’ supported financially by Wells and others who remained in town,” according to an essay in the book. “This continued until the white citizenry, feeling the loss of manual labor and business income, appealed to Wells to halt the exodus. She refused.”
In 1893 and 1894, Wells traveled to Europe, where she lectured about the horrors of lynchings occurring in the United States.
Two years later, in 1895, she published “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States,” according to the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library. “The southern white man would not consider that the Negro had any right which a white man was bound to respect,” she wrote.
In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand L. Barnett, the editor of the Chicago Conservator, one of Chicago’s first major African American newspapers. She became stepmother of his two children, and the couple had four more together.
In Chicago, Wells-Barnett became prominent in civic and political circles. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and led the fight to elect Chicago’s first black alderman and congressman, Oscar DePriest. And in 1930, she ran an unsuccessful campaign for state senator in Illinois.
She also helped integrate the U.S. suffrage movement “when she refused to walk with the other black women at the rear of a 1913 Washington parade and instead infiltrated the ranks of her white Illinois ‘peers’ after the march began,” according to a National Park Service account of her life
Wells’s anti-lynching crusade for black justice continued until she died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931. She was 68.
Eighty-seven years later, the Peace and Justice Memorial in Alabama builds on the work of Wells. The memorial is designed to prompt a national conversation about racial injustice, exposing the awful history of lynching with hundreds of steel monuments that literally sway in the wind, beaten by the elements and the sunlight.
“The way to right wrongs,” Wells once wrote, “is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this report referred to “Historical Scholars” as a book; it is a section of the book “African American Criminological Thought.”
Read more Retropolis: