Ida Wells, the daughter of a carpenter, was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. Her parents were slaves but they family achieved freedom in 1865. When Ida was sixteen both her parents and a younger brother, died of yellow fever. At a meeting following the funeral, friends and relatives decided that the five children should be farmed out to various aunts and uncles. Ida was devastated by the idea and to keep the family together, dropped out of High School, and found employment as a teacher in a local Black school.
In 1880 Ida moved to Memphis where she attended Fisk University. Ida held strong political opinions and she upset many people with her views on women's rights. When she was 24 she wrote, "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge."
Ida became a public figure in the city when in 1884 she led a campaign against segregation on the local railway. After being forcibly removed from a whites only carriage she successfully sued the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railroad Company. However, this was overturned three years later by a ruling from the Tennessee Supreme Court.
In 1884 Ida began teaching in Memphis. She also wrote articles on civil rights for local newspapers and when she criticised the Memphis Board of Education for under-funding African American schools, she lost her job as a teacher.
Ida used her savings to become part owner of Free Speech , a small newspaper in Memphis. Over the next few years she concentrated on writing about individual cases where black people had suffered at the hands of white racists. This included an investigation into lynching and discovered during a short period 728 black men and women had been lynched by white mobs. Of these deaths, two-thirds were for small offences such as public drunkenness and shoplifting.
On 9th March, 1892, three African American businessmen were lynched in Memphis. When Ida wrote an article condemning the lynchers, a white mob destroyed her printing press. They declared that they intended to lynch Ida but fortunately she was visiting Philadelphia at the time. Unable to return to Memphis, Ida was recruited by the progressive newspaper, New York Age . She continued her campaign against lynching and Jim Crow laws and in 1893 and 1894 made lecture tours of Britain. While there in 1894 she helped to establish the British Anti-Lynching Committee. Members included James Keir Hardie, Thomas Burt, John Clifford, Isabella Ford, Tom Mann, Joseph Pease, C. P. Scott, Ben Tillett and Mary Humphrey Ward.
In 1894 Ida married Ferdinand Barnett, the founder of the Conservator , the first African American newspaper in Chicago. Ida gave birth to four children: Charles (1896), Herman (1897), Ida (1901) and Alfreda (1904). She continued her involvement in politics and wrote pamphlets such as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law and Mob Rule in New Orleans .
In 1901 Ida published her book, Lynching and the Excuse for It. In the book she argued that the main aim of lynching was to intimidate blacks from becoming involved in politics and therefore maintaining white power in the South.
Ida was also one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909. At the first conference of the NAACP she successfully persuaded the organisation to resolve to make lynching a federal crime.
An early supporter of women's suffrage, Ida created a stir in 1913 when she refused to march at the back with other black delegates during a demonstration organised by the National American Women Suffrage.
Ida, who wrote for the Chicago Tribune, campaigned for racial equality in the United States Army during the First World War. This included publicizing the execution of black soldiers for minor offences while fighting for their country. After her retirement, Ida wrote her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928).
Ida Wells-Barnett died of uremia on 25th March, 1931.
© John Simkin, May 2013