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Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Her Life, Legacy and the NAACP

Updated: Jan 31, 2019

Celebrating 110 years of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)!

This year marks the 110th anniversary of the NAACP, so we think there’s no better time than now to highlight the role of those often-unsung heroes, who nevertheless made significant contributions to African-American history. Each month we will feature a different individual, sharing their historical background, career, and their role in civil rights.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Her Life, Legacy and the NAACP

Our inaugural article features the life and legacy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and her significant contributions to America and to African-American culture.

It was fewer than six months before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that, in 1862, Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, MS as the first of eight children of James and Elizabeth Wells. The Wells’ family like other enslaved families in the confederate states were declared free by the stroke of Lincoln’s pen January 1, 1863.

The Wells’ family believed that education was the key to upward mobility in this newly organized American paradigm. Her father was one of the founders and a member of the board of trustees of Shaw University, now Rust College, the school at which Ida B. would begin her studies at an early age. However, at 16-years-old, she had to drop out of college when both of her parents and three of her siblings died from yellow fever. The courage and strength she showed during this time would become her legacy.

While elder family members encouraged her to split up the family, Wells said, “no,” instead, she took on the role of mother and father. She dropped out of school and with the help of her grandmother, cared for her four remaining siblings. Her grandmother watched the children during the week so that she could work as an elementary school teacher in Holly Springs, MS.

In 1883 two more of her siblings died and Wells decided to take up the offer of one of her aunts and move with her remaining two siblings to Memphis. She worked as a teacher in the Shelby county school system and during summer “vacations” she continued her education at Fisk University in Nashville and Lemoyne-Owen in Memphis.

Building on the courage she had affirmed earlier, in 1884, Ida entered into her journalism career and commenced her battle-ready stance for activism. On a day in May of that year, she purchased a first-class ticket (for 30 cents) to board the Chesapeake & Ohio train from Memphis to Nashville. She made a conscious decision to sit in the ladies’ car. However, black women were not considered ladies—even when they had purchased first-class tickets, they were confined to the colored car.

When Wells was confronted by the white conductor and asked to move back to the colored car, she refused. The conductor proceeded to remove her from the car; she resisted—so much so that he called on the help of white passengers. With their help, he physically threw her from that car. This did not rest well with Wells; she sued C&O railroad and won the case in the Circuit Court of Shelby County. With her victory, the newspaper headlines read: “A Darky Damsel Obtains a Verdict for Damages...What It Cost to Put a Colored Teacher in a Smoking Car… $500.”[1] Regardless of the headline, “Ida had won a victory for the race, for black women, and, in light of her damaged reputation, her true-womanhood pride.”[2] Several years later, in 1887, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision.

Enter, Wells’ journalism career. Immediately after the incident on the C&O train, she wrote about the incident in The Living Way, a Black church weekly. While she continued to teach, her journalism career took off. She continued to write weekly for The Living Way and took on a position as editorial writer for the Evening Star in Washington, DC, and by 1889, she was the editor and co-owner of The Free Speech and Headlight, both black-owned newspapers—the latter located on the famous Beale Street in Memphis. It wasn’t long before she was fired by the Shelby Country School District because of her published criticisms of the abhorrent conditions of black, segregated schools.

In 1892, Ida published her research on lynching in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In it, she concluded that Southerners cried rape as an excuse to hide their real reasons for lynching: black economic progress, which threatened white Southerners with competition, and white ideas of enforcing black second-class status in the society. [3]

In 1895, she wrote and published The Red Record, a pamphlet that described lynching in the United States post-1863. In it, she detailed the struggles of her people in the South since the Civil War. She said that more than ten thousand Black people had been killed in cold blood without the formality of judicial trial. [4] Her writings would catapult her career to national and international prominence. Because Wells was not able to gain needed support to curtail the untoward treatment of Blacks in this country, she reached out to Great Britain and traveled there several times to win their support and influence.

She would continue to carry on this work when she moved to Chicago. In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand Lee Barnett, Jr., an attorney, who like Wells, was committed to the same work as she was. While Wells-Barnett continued her anti-lynching work, she also planted her foot in the larger issues of Civil Rights for African Americans.

Now Wells-Barnett, Ida began working with the likes of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, and others; however, they as did members of the colored women’s clubs and white suffragists, considered Wells-Barnett too radical. One well-known story of her “radicalism” occurred in 1913, the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. The white National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) held a parade in DC with participants from across the country. They were calling for universal suffrage. Of course, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and a sizable Black delegation from Chicago attended. They were soon approached by a white leader of the Chicago delegation and told that they wanted to keep the parade entirely white; therefore, the Black suffragists were to go to the back of the parade line and march with the “colored delegation.” Rather than doing that, Wells simply waited with the spectators and as soon as the parade approached, much to the White leader’s chagrin, Wells jumped in the front line of the parade with other suffragists. Her extraordinary tenacity put her at odds with other black leaders as well as white women, such as Susan B. Anthony.

Undaunted, she continued her work as a civil rights leader. In 1908 when a race riot broke out in Springfield, IL, civil rights leaders, both Black and White said, enough is enough, they put their hands, hearts and minds together and the NAACP was born. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a founding organizer of this premier civil rights organization in 1909.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Ferdinand had four children. Wells-Barnett lived a life worth living and died in 1931 in Chicago at the age of 68.


[1] Giddings, P.J. (2008). Ida: A Sword Among Lions. HarperCollins. New York, NY

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wells, I.B. (1892). Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases. The New York Age, New York, NY.

[4] Wells, I.B. (1895). The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. Reprinted in 2005 by the Project Gutenberg e-Book

The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them. ― Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Submitted by Anita Fleming-Rife, Ph.D.


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