6 minute read

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett

Further Readings

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was a prominent and often controversial African–American reformer who spoke out against racial oppression in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The daughter of slaves, Wells-Barnett conducted a self-described crusade for justice to protest the savage LYNCHINGS of hundreds of African Americans in the South. Her impassioned antilynching lectures and publications had an enormous effect on public opinion in the United States and Great Britain. Outspoken and self-confident, Wells-Barnett was viewed with hostility by many whites and rebuffed by several African–American leaders who resented her frequent criticism of their efforts. Yet, even her detractors conceded that Wells-Barnett's unshakable commitment to the social, political, and economic advancement of African Americans propelled the struggle for CIVIL RIGHTS.


Born July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells-Barnett was the oldest of eight children of James Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton Wells. After the Civil War, her father was a carpenter and a leader in local Reconstruction activities. Wells-Barnett attended Shaw University (later renamed Rust College), an African American school for all grade levels established in Holly Springs in 1866 by Freedmen's Aid, a church-sponsored effort to educate former

Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

slaves. The northern Methodist missionaries who taught at the school considered Wells-Barnett an exemplary student.

When Wells-Barnett was sixteen years old, her parents and youngest brother died in a yellow fever epidemic. Wells-Barnett insisted on raising her surviving siblings while teaching school in a rural district. By 1883, her brothers were old enough to begin work as carpenters, so Wells-Barnett and her sisters moved to Memphis, to live with an aunt. Wells-Barnett attended classes at Fisk University and taught school in Memphis until 1891, when she was fired from her job for criticizing the segregationist policies of the Memphis School Board. Angry articles by Wells-Barnett in the small newspaper Free Speech and Headlight denounced the limited educational opportunities for African Americans in "separate-but-equal" Memphis schools. Writing under the pen name Iola, Wells-Barnett discovered her talent for journalism and her calling as a social activist.

Wells-Barnett became co-owner and editor of Free Speech and a vocal opponent of JIM CROW LAWS in the South. In one Free Speech article, she described her own frustrating 1884 lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio, & Southwestern Railroad. The dispute began when Wells-Barnett boarded a train in Memphis en route to Woodstock, Tennessee. After taking her usual seat in the "ladies car," which was a first-class coach, she and the other African–American women in that car were told by the conductor to move to the smoking car, which was not first-class. By Tennessee law, African Americans were to be assigned separate and equal accommodations on public transportation.

When Wells-Barnett refused to sit in the smoking car, she was forced off the train. Later, she sued the railroad and won $500 in damages from a lower state court. Her triumph was short-lived, however, because the award was overturned in 1887 by the Supreme Court of Tennessee, which determined that a smoking car could indeed serve as a first-class accommodation for African Americans (Chesapeake, Ohio, & Southwestern Railroad Co. v. Wells, 85 Tenn. (1 Pickle) 613, 4 S.W. 5 [1887]). The Tennessee high court suggested that Wells-Barnett's real motive in refusing to sit in the smoking car was to harass the railroad and to lay the groundwork

for a profitable lawsuit. The court chastised Wells-Barnett for failing to try in GOOD FAITH to secure a comfortable seat. The stark injustice of the court's reversal fueled Wells-Barnett's determination to speak out against the mistreatment of African Americans.

For Wells-Barnett, the pivotal event in her activist career was the LYNCHING in 1892 of her friends Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart, three African–American merchants from Memphis. The men owned the People's Grocery, a thriving operation that had cut into the profits of its white competitors. When a mob of white men was deputized to arrest the three merchants on trumped-up criminal charges, violence erupted, and the innocent African Americans were hanged.

Wells-Barnett was outraged. She wrote a scathing editorial in Free Speech, denouncing not only the murder of her friends but also the offensive, widely accepted rationale for most lynchings. Wells-Barnett observed that contrary to southern myth, lynchings were rarely if ever spontaneous group acts in retaliation for sexual misconduct by African–American men. A lynch mob was actually a barbaric mechanism for maintaining power among whites and for denying African Americans their civil rights. Protecting the reputation of southern white women was a smoke screen. Wells-Barnett also asserted that any sexual liaisons between African–American men and white women were consensual, an observation that enraged much of the conservative white population.

After the editorial was published, an angry throng of white men stormed the Free Speech office and destroyed Wells-Barnett's printing press. Wells-Barnett was in Philadelphia at the time.

These episodes of mob rule, so contrary to the democratic ideal, led Wells-Barnett to launch an antilynching campaign. Wells-Barnett relied not only on righteous indignation but on shocking national statistics to make her case against lynching. In articles and speeches, she quoted a grim fact: in 1894, 132 legal executions were carried out in the United States, and 197 lynchings occurred. African Americans were receiving the death penalty from self-appointed white citizens without the benefit of criminal investigations, formal charges, LEGAL REPRESENTATION, or trials. Wells-Barnett's findings were published in 1895 in a detailed book entitled A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892–1893–1894.

In 1893, Wells-Barnett carried her antilynching campaign to Great Britain in the hope of exerting international pressure on U.S. legislators to enact antilynching laws. She was well received in Great Britain and spoke to large crowds. While in Europe, she was a guest at several women's civic clubs and was impressed with their worthwhile, community-minded activities. Wells-Barnett exported the idea to the United States, where African–American women's clubs flourished.

In 1895, Wells-Barnett married Ferdinand L. Barnett, the first African–American state's attorney in Illinois. After the marriage, Wells-Barnett curtailed her international speaking but continued to write in national publications. The couple lived in Chicago and had four children. Wells-Barnett worked hard to improve conditions for African Americans in Chicago by serving as a social worker and community organizer.

Wells-Barnett was well-known throughout the United States, yet the political power she craved eluded her. Although she was involved in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she alienated many of her African–American colleagues with her sharp tongue and unbending manner. Also, she was an unreserved critic of the accommodationist position favored by BOOKER T. WASHINGTON, the founder of Tuskegee Institute and the most influential African–American leader at the time. Wells-Barnett favored a militant approach to achieving racial equality and was not welcome in the Washington camp. Other women such as Mary McLeod Bethune eventually eclipsed Wells-Barnett in influence. A combination of politics and personal animosity prevented Wells-Barnett from achieving the level of African–American leadership she sought.

Although Wells-Barnett felt stymied near the end of her career, she earned an honored and lasting place in history as one of the first African American civil rights activists. Daughter Alfreda M. Barnett Duster wrote that Wells-Barnett "fought a lonely and almost single-handed fight, with the single-mindedness of a crusader, long before men or women of any race entered the arena" (Wells 1970, xxxii).

Wells-Barnett died in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of sixty-eight. In 1950 the city of Chicago named her one of the twenty-five most outstanding women in its history.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Alyce Faye Wattleton to Zoning - Further Readings