*photograph sourced from this siteIda B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) Born in Holly Springs,
Mississippi 'just six months before Emancipation,' Ida B. Wells would become one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates of human rights. Her father was politically minded and considered himself a 'race man; her mother, Elizabeth, who worked as a cook, strongly encouraged her children's educations. Ida would attend one of the Freedman Schools in Holly Springs until she was sixteen. After losing her parents to the Yellow Fever epidemic of the 1870s, young Ida Barnett was determined to keep what remained of her family together and supported her siblings on her meager teacher's salary. Her interest in racial politics in the South began with her outrage at the disparity between the salaries earned by white teachers (eighty dollars a month) compared to those of African American teachers (about thirty dollars a month); this concern, together with a determination to improve the educational opportunities for African Americans galvanized her early activism. Wells moved to Memphis, where she found better pay in the Shelby County School System, and during the summer sessions, she would attend Fisk University (an HBC in Nashville); and LeMoyne Institute (1).
Wells' journalism career began shortly after an incident occurred in which Wells refused to surrender her seat on a Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad train. After two lawsuits to sue the railroad (neither of which was successful), she began to write about her experiences in the newspapers, The Evening Star and The Living Way--a weekly Baptist newspaper located at the Beale Street Baptist Church. Wells wrote these columns under the pen name "Iola": a stylistic (and logistic) choice that inspired the fictitious character Iola Leroy, created by fellow activist Frances E.W. Harper in the novel by the same name. Her focus soon shifted to the subject of lynchings when, in 1892 "three black businessmen opened a grocery store that competed with a white merchant. They were lynched" (Gates 676). The young journalist railed against the incident, exposing the "Old Threadbare Lie": the presumption among white supremacists that black males were inherently drawn to, and determine to violate, white women. "Nobody in this section believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men assault white women. If southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women" (Gates 676). Her words sparked a firestorm, and the office of her newspaper, Free Speech, was destroyed by angered whites. Fortunately, Wells was out of town at the time. During her time away from the South, Wells developed her career as writer and editor, and assumed partial ownership of the New York Age. Her Red Record exposed the atrocities of lynchings in the South for a national audience, and advocated "positive action" from its readers. Wells went on to become an important figure in the club women movement--African American women who organized for social change--and was among the founding constituency for the NAACP.
Video on Wells-Barnett by Katherine Bankole-Medina