Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)
The suffragette who didn’t suffer fools

In her words: “One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

In others’ words: “She didn’t suffer fools and she saw fools everywhere”

Bio: Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, most commonly known as Ida B. Wells, was a prominent journalist, teacher, and activist. Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi mere months before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1862, Wells grew up in a large family, with parents who were active in the Reconstruction. At age 16, while she was visiting her grandmother, her parents and one of her siblings caught the yellow fever and died. In an effort to keep the rest of the siblings together, Wells moved her siblings to Memphis, dropped out of school, and began working.

Wells’ activism took of when she filed a lawsuit against a train car company in Memphis for unfair treatment – she was forced to move out of the first class train car despite having a ticket. Additionally, Wells gained publicity through an essay she penned in the black church weekly paper The Living Way describing her treatment on the train. In 1893, three of Wells’ good friends were lynched and she began her thorough investigation into lynching as a way for the white majority to control black individuals. As her work was disseminated throughout the country in books and black newspapers, Wells was run out of the South because of her articles, most of which challenged the “rape myth” that most lynch mobs used as justification for murder. Through her research, Wells also uncovered the trend that the black victims of lynchings tended to have either challenged white authority or had successful competed with whites in business or politics.

When Wells made it to Chicago after leaving the South, it did not take her long to engage in local activism there, as well as continuing her anti-lynching campaigns. Between the years 1893 and 1909, Wells was involved in the protest of African Americans from the World’s Columbia Exposition, helped launch the National Association of Colored Women, and was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also was a regular agitator of women’s suffrage events, calling white women out on being silent on lynching and not including black women in the movement.

When Wells’ married her husband, lawyer and activist Ferdinand L. Barnett, in 1895, her career took the forefront. Atypical to family dynamics of the time, Wells kept her own name in addition to taking her husband’s name and Barnett was the one who kept the house, cooking dinner and watching the kids when Wells was away working.

Towards the end of her life, Wells fell from prominence as activists more conservative in tactics, such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, started to take the limelight. She was also edged out of leadership of the two organizations she helped start for similar reasons.