Although the president has attacked male journalists as well and derided the press in general as the enemy of the people, the comments he directs toward black women journalists have a particular valence. For example, in response to PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor’s question about masks and ventilators, Trump admonished, “Be nice. Don’t be threatening.” Alcindor later tweeted about the incident, commenting that she was “not the first human being, woman, black person or journalist to be told that while doing a job.”
She is right. Attacking the character and decorum of black female journalists to avoid answering tough questions has a long history in the U.S. stretching back to the 19th century. Wells, a pioneering African American journalist and civil rights activist, frequently faced personal attacks from white male political leaders for raising uncomfortable truths. Her ability to navigate the personal attacks to generate meaningful political change is why she deserved the Pulitzer Prize, and why the women who have followed in her footsteps make Trump so uneasy.
Of the dozens of black female journalists in the 19th century, few ventured into political topics as fearlessly as Wells. An early muckraker, she attracted the ire of those who benefited from the unjust systems she exposed. Wells’s campaign against lynching, for which she won recognition, brought unprecedented scrutiny to American mob violence. She published numerous investigative newspaper reports, editorials and pamphlets denouncing lynching as a form of racial terrorism.
Wells also famously cultivated international outrage over the lynching of African Americans through two speaking tours of Great Britain in the 1890s. Shocked by what appeared to be an emerging epidemic of mob violence, British reformers criticized southern U.S. politicians and religious leaders for their complacency or tacit support for the brutal public murder of black men, women and children.
Such work was essential to uncovering the carefully cultivated cultural narratives that lynching apologists designed to legitimize such killings in the name of justice. For example, Judge Luke Edward Lawless had infamously instructed jurors that they could not find anyone responsible for mob violence when deaths resulted from “that mysterious, metaphysical, almost electric phrenzy” of the mob, rather than the work of “a small number of individuals.” Unwilling to prosecute lynchers even in high-profile cases, coroner’s inquests routinely ruled that victims met their deaths “at the hands of persons unknown.” Lynching apologists were frustrated with a legal system that supplanted rough justice with due process, and so mob violence increasingly became an outlet for popular resentment against the modern criminal justice system.
Lynching also became a powerful tool for defending white supremacy after slavery was abolished. A new narrative then emerged, claiming that lynching was necessary to punish black rapists and to shield “delicate” white women from the trauma of testifying about sexual assault in open court. Public anxiety about the mythical “black beast rapist” became an effective tool for promoting Jim Crow segregation, which restricted the freedoms of both African Americans and white women under the guise of chivalry.
Wells shone a light on the incongruities between American lynching narratives and the realities of mob violence, which targeted African Americans accused of social transgressions, such as refusing to show deference to whites or providing economic competition for white rivals. Using statistics gathered from white newspaper reports of lynchings, she demonstrated that less than one-third of cases involved any allegations of sexual offenses. Wells concluded that race prejudice, not rape, was the primary motivation for mob violence against African Americans.
To underscore her critique, Wells provided examples. She recalled the lynching of the owners of the People’s Grocery Company in Memphis for protecting their property from attack at the behest of a jealous white rival. She recounted the brutal murders of two black women wrongly accused of poisoning — one was hanged naked in the courthouse square, while the other was nailed into a barrel lined with spikes and thrown down a hill. She also provided personal testimony about the destruction of her press and how she faced threats of lynching for her journalistic work. The lesson was clear: African Americans had no legal protections and their lives held no value where lynching and race prejudice flourished.
It worked. Her reporting stirred British moral outrage over racially-motivated killings of unarmed men, women and children — and white southerners could not risk alienating such an important economic partner. In the post-Civil War era, England remained the largest importer of southern cotton and British capital accounted for roughly 75 percent of all foreign investment in the U.S. Cotton prices fell and regional competition for investors increased dramatically with the global economic depression that spanned from 1893 to 1897. The controversy Wells stirred threatened to deter potential investors and imperil the region’s economic future.
To deflect criticism, southern governors, religious leaders and journalists alike began to attack Wells’s character, forcing her to become the story in the American press. At a time when women struggled to gain legitimacy as public reformers and professionals, even unproven attacks on a woman’s character could end her public life. By the 1890s, white women had found wider acceptance as moral reformers in movements like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, but African American women still struggled to gain legitimacy and the social protections afforded to their white counterparts.
In particular they fought against popular stereotypes of black women’s licentiousness, which had perpetuated since before the Civil War to excuse white men’s sexual exploitation of enslaved women. In the post-war world, these stereotypes were reinvigorated to support white men’s continued sexual access to now-free black women and undermine their very right to be in public.
Southern newspaper editors mocked Wells’s status as a lady reformer with headlines calling her “Miss Ida,” labeling her a “negro wench” or referring to her as “the Wells woman” while addressing white women in the same article with the title “Miss.” Southern politicians and social leaders attacked Wells’s character, labeled her a “Negro Adventuress,” and rejected her claims as “slanderous.” Georgia Gov. William J. Northen even accused Wells of lying about conditions in the South to promote western land development.
John W. Jacks, president of the Missouri Press Association, wrote to Wells’s British supporters in March 1895 asserting that she could not be a reliable source. Jacks claimed that all black women were “prostitutes” and “natural liars and thieves” who were “wholly devoid of morality.” The attack was so offensive that Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Victoria Earle Mathews, Margaret Murray Washington and other leading African American reformers came together to form what became the National Association of Colored Women to defend the honor of black women and assert their status as ladies.
By recognizing Wells’s investigative journalism at this particular moment in American history, the Pulitzer Prize Board honored not only her work but also her continuing legacy. Wells forged a path for women of color who can now be found in every field of journalism, including the White House Press Briefing Room. Roxanne Jones praised Wells for inspiring “black girls like me” to use their words “as a weapon against hate and fear.” Nikole Hannah-Jones marveled at the significance of winning a Pulitzer Prize on the same day for her 1619 Project, published by a newspaper that had called Wells a “slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress” in 1894.
Yet even today, Hannah-Jones reflected, “the same instinct to downplay lynching, to attack her credibility because it was easier than owning up the truth, is at play.” As in Wells’s time, the personal attacks black women journalists receive today are a testament to the importance of the challenging questions they raise.