Ida B Wells: civil rights activist and scourge of lynch mobs

The first female editor of a black American newspaper was also a major civil rights activist. Kira Cochrane introduces a courageous woman who fought to end lynchings

Portrait of Ide B Wells

In May 1892, an angry mob descended on the offices of the Memphis newspaper Free Speech and Headlight. The paper had been running a series of anti-lynching editorials written by Ida Bell Wells, its young editor and part-owner, and her most recent instalment was particularly forthright in attacking the argument generally used to justify the mob killing of black men. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women,” she wrote. “If southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves.”

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The reaction was swift and brutal. The editor of another Memphis newspaper wrote that the author of the editorial (whom he assumed was a man) should be branded with a hot iron and castrated. Though Wells was away, the mob trashed the newspaper’s printing press and offices, and a note was left threatening death to anyone who dared print another issue. The attack proved to be a turning point in her life and career.

The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press
Ide B Wells in 1892

Born to enslaved parents in Mississippi in 1862, Wells was three years old when the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution formally abolished slavery. Her parents were skilled urban labourers who believed strongly in the power of education, and Ida, their eldest child, read widely before studying at Rust College near Memphis.

This part of her education came to an abrupt end when yellow fever swept through her hometown of Holly Springs in Mississippi, killing her parents and baby brother Stanley. Aged just 16, she found herself the head of a family of five younger siblings. Determined that they would stay together, she began work as a teacher.

One day five years later Wells was travelling with a first-class train ticket when a conductor instructed her to move from the ladies’ carriage to a cheaper one. As Rosa Parks did 72 years later, Wells refused to give up her seat, and was moved forcibly by the conductor and two other men. She sued the railroad for assault and discrimination, and when the Tennessee State Supreme Court overturned her initial victory in the case, she wrote about what had happened. That was the start of her extraordinary journalistic career.

Wells made her name in the 1880s as one of only 45 black women journalists in the US, writing under the pseudonym Iola, Princess of the Press, as her biographer Mia Bay has noted. In 1889 she became the first woman to co-own and edit a black newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight. She was a courageous writer; she lost her job as a teacher after writing an article criticising the conditions in Memphis’s black schools. By that time, though, she had made a commercial success of Free Speech.

The killing of a friend of hers, storeowner Thomas Moss, while in police custody in March 1892 prompted her to launch a campaign against lynching with a series of editorials – including the one that so incensed the mob that attacked her newspaper. The mob killing of black men was commonly justified by claims that the men in question had raped white women. But, as in many other cases, there had been no such charge against Moss and his two colleagues when they were dragged to a barren field and shot. Lynching was not about rape, Wells surmised. It was about power.

After the mob attacked the Free Speech, Wells decided to leave Memphis, travelling to New York City with a pistol for protection. There she changed her pen name to ‘Exiled’, and soon became a public figure, investigating and exposing the reality of lynching. The campaign would make her, for a time, the most famous black woman in America.

In the 1890s she took this message to the UK, where her supporters, who included the Duke of Argyll, set up the British Anti-Lynching Committee. This campaign made Wells unpopular at home; The New York Times went so far as to describe her as “a slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress”.

Despite the backlash, though, Wells was steadfast. She was involved in the formation of many influential groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and had four children with her husband, the journalist and lawyer Ferdinand Lee Barnett. In her later years Wells lived in Chicago, where she worked towards urban reform, and where she died of kidney failure in 1931. Clever, critical, radical and courageous, she was a role model of resistance.

Kira Cochrane is the author of Modern Women: 52 Pioneers (Frances Lincoln, 2017)

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This article was taken from issue 3 of BBC World Histories magazine