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Ida B. Wells-Barnett

1862 - 1931

Anti-lynching crusader, Suffragist, Women's rights advocate, Journalist, Speaker

"One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap." - Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells-Barnett is to be remembered as one of America's strongest leaders, unflinching in her stands for justice and equality for women and black people.  Born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, during and after the Civil War in the deep South, Ida's parents experienced freedom from slavery.  They were both industrious and able to provide for their seven children through the mother's wonderful cooking skills and her father's carpentry ability.  Unfortunately tragedy struck when the Yellow Fever took the lives of her parents and youngest sibling.  At fourteen, Ida found herself in the role of parent and made provisions for them working as a teacher.  She continued her education at Rust College, and later moved to Memphis to live with her aunt and continue to bring up her youngest sisters.

In Memphis she began her crusade for racial justice.  In 1884, she was seated on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company train and asked to give up her seat for a white man.  The black people were then directed to the smoking or "Jim Crow" car which was already crowded.  Even though segregation was made illegal by the 1875 Civil Rights Act, railroad companies and other public places ignored the legislation.  Ida would not remove herself, reminiscent of Rosa Parks, and had to be taken from the train against her will. 

      I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies' car, I proposed to stay...[The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand.  I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn't try it again by himself.  He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.

When Ida was thrown off the train the white people cheered, and that fueled her motivation to hire a lawyer to sue the railroad.  Her case was victorious, but was later overturned when the railroad appealed to the higher Supreme Court of Tennessee.  A result of the lawsuit against the railroad, Ida's reputation as a courageous young woman was brought to the attention sympathizers, and she began a career as a journalist writing to African American and Christian readers.

In 1889 she became a co-editor for the paper Free Speech and Headlight along with the Rev. R. Nightingale, and thus was able to write full-time.  Sadly, in 1892, her friends Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart were lynched because the grocery store they owned was taking customers away from the white establishments.  Taking pen in hand she recorded the event for the world to judge:

    The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival.  There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms.  The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay. but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes.  There is therefore only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.

Many people took her advice and left Memphis, while others boycotted white businesses in protest.  Ida's newspaper office was destroyed as a result of her blistering editorials against the white establishment, and she moved to Chicago.  There she continued to investigate reports of black lynchings which were becoming more common, and published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. 

Along with another Chicagoan, Jane Addams, Ida crusaded for women's suffrage, and together they were successful in preventing the segregation of Chicago's public schools.  In 1895, Ida married to Attorney F.L. Barnett, a well-known editor of one of Chicago's black newspapers.  She bore and raised two sons and two daughters.    In 1909 she was asked with others to become a member of the "Committee of 40" which later led to the creation of the NAACP.  She was one of the few black leaders to oppose the strategies of Booker T. Washington.  In 1930, unhappy with the candidates running for office, Ida became the first black woman to run for public office for the Illinois state legislature.  A year later she died after spending her life crusading for justice in an uncompromisingly courageous manner. 


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