Adam C. Williams, III
“THE PEOPLE MUST KNOW BEFORE THEY CAN ACT, AND THERE IS NO EDUCATOR TO COMPARE WITH THE PRESS… SOMEBODY MUST SHOW THAT THE AFRO-AMERICAN RACE IS MORE SINNED AGAINST THAN SINNING, AND IT SEEMS TO HAVE FALLEN UPON ME TO DO SO” (IDA B. WELLS).
As we proceed through Black History Month in 2012, it is critical that we as a people pay homage to and educate our youth on the ancestors that have paved the way; yet continue to receive little credit. The forgotten legacy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett is truly one of our greatest stories, hardly told. She would grow to be one of the great pioneer activists of civil and human rights throughout the Post-reconstruction period along with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. She worked alongside Susan B. Anthony, Black women’s organizations, and many other women’s rights advocate groups. Further, even though she was marginalized by her male comrades, and receives little recognition for her contribution to the development of the organization, she co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In addition, she was a political candidate, a mother, wife, and the single most powerful leader in the anti-lynching campaign. However, possibly her greatest achievements (yet least known and/or acknowledged) came by way of her contributions to the fields of media. She was a newspaper editor and publisher, as well as the greatest ‘Investigative Journalist’ ever, as she courageously cultivated and singlehandedly revolutionized the art-form.
Ida B. Wells was born in enslavement in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862. After emancipation in 1865, her parents, James and Elizabeth Wells, raised their daughter in a strict household which stressed education, religion, and politics. However, at the age of 16, tragedy struck her family as she lost both her parents and her 10-month old brother in the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic which spread throughout the South leaving many casualties in its wake. At the age of 16, in order to keep her younger siblings together as a family, she dropped out of Rust College and found work as a teacher in a Black elementary school in Memphis, TN. She resented that White teachers were paid nearly three times more than her in the public schools. She describes in her auto-biography that this blatant form of economic and racial discrimination influenced her to take a greater interest in the politics of race and improving the education of Blacks.
Even though teaching was her first career and was highly praised for her creative approaches to classroom instruction, it has been said that she found the meaning of her life when she pursued her career as a journalist. In 1887, she created her own weekly column known as IOLA’s Letter, in which she used the alias IOLA, due to socially, racially, and politically charged statements that she published, which could’ve easily cost her life had her true identity been exposed. In these publishing’s she advocated self-help, education, and social reform for the Negro in America. Through her early writings and dealings with her contemporaries (both Black and White) she was described as “uncompromising” and “never backed down from anything and/or anyone”.
For nearly a century, it was illegal to teach Blacks to read and write. In 1877, the last of the Northern troops abandoned the South and left Blacks to defend themselves against their former enslavers. Southern states quickly enacted various laws to keep Blacks in subordinate positions and economically deprived. A massive propaganda campaign was unleashed in the press about African American genetic and cultural inferiority. Many in the mainstream press characterized the newly emancipated Negro as reverting to savagery since slavery was no longer in place to control them. Wells fought back with the ‘power of the pen’ as she boldly challenged the common practice of lynching Blacks throughout post-reconstruction. Most of these lynchings were well publicized and attendance boasted up to 10,000 spectators. So popular were these lynchings, that they became a place where entire families and communities gathered in their “Sunday Best”, cooked and ate food, took pictures while posing with the mutilated corpses, as well as took keepsakes and souvenirs of every part of the dismembered Black bodies (i.e.- ears, nose, eyes, hair, limbs, genitals, etc.). Some would even eat these body parts as forms of rituals.
Wells understood the economic and political influence that was used against Blacks. She not only intimately exposed the rest of the nation to the savage practices of White Southern culture, but she also retaliated by hitting them in their pocket books. Enraged after a large lynch mob stormed the jail cells and killed three of her friends (Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart). The incident stemmed from an altercation at a competitive Black owned grocery store where jealous Whites invaded the store of the three men. Wells furiously urged Blacks to leave Memphis throughout her persistent published articles and organizing efforts. It was during this time that Wells officially began her Anti-lynching campaign. She spoke on the issue at various Black women’s clubs, and raised more than $500 to investigate lynchings and publish her results. Her first pamphlet on lynching was titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in all its Phases.
Not deterred by the cruel and ever-present fate that she ironically might face in her investigations, she courageously continued to investigate and compile data on the causes of lynchings all throughout the South. As a result of the constant questioning of her data as credible and valid, she collected and organized both oral and written testimonies in a meticulous fashion in order to frame her stories. This revolutionized the media field and provided a blueprint for others to follow and measure their work in investigative journalism. Wells began her studies by exploring the charges given for the murders. She discovered the vast majority of these murders by mob violence were killed for such reasons as: Failing to pay debts, not appearing to give way to whites, competing with whites economically, and even being drunk in public. This dispelled the myth that White women were sexually attacked by Black men.
Following the lynchings of her three friends, through the use of the press, she actually influenced over 6,000 Blacks to leave Memphis, abandoning many of their possessions (i.e.- homes, land, businesses, community, etc.) in order to re-establish themselves in unknown territories, in hopes for better opportunities and treatment. Many of those that decided to stay; she again used her refined literary skills to influence many of them to organize boycotts of White owned businesses. Most White owned businesses and communities throughout Memphis, which were highly dependent on Black labor and/or Black consumption, significantly lost money. Many believe this to be the key reason that she was loathed by Southern Whites and had a bounty placed on her head. She later wrote, “They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth.”
Exiled out of the entire South, and threatened with death if she ever returned, Wells took refuge in Chicago and was quickly hired by The New York Age and continued her crusade against the evils of lynching Blacks in the South. With this widely distributed paper, she became one of the most widely read and popular Black writers during this time, being nicknamed the “Princess of the Press”. Even though Black men were the primary targets of these spineless and uncivilized attacks on Black life, it was Black Women in many instances who led the resistance. In 1892, Wells was a distinguished guest for the ‘Black Women’s Club Movement’ and joined forces to start the very first Anti-Lynching Movement. With Wells as the undoubted leader and outspoken personality of the movement, she led Black women across the country to defend the honor of Black men and the Black family.
She lived in Europe off and on for two years in order to gain further support and utilize mainstream media channels that would help to broadcast to the rest of the world the treatment that African Americans endured. Her tremendous efforts in the crusade against lynching, placed America’s morals and character onto the world stage. Wells understood how critical the southern economy relied on the English market. Now with the world paying attention, and the financial prosperity of the southern economy on the line as a result, forced America to at least be more discreet with their mal-treatment of Blacks; as mob violence against Blacks dramatically decreased. In fact, after 1894, there wasn’t another ‘recorded lynching in Memphis for almost two decades’. However, the blood of the Black community stained this period in US history, as 3,437 Blacks were recorded as being lynched between 1882-1952.
Ida B. Wells was one of the most influential figures in history, yet, most of us have never heard her story before, and we must understand that isn’t by accident. She represents the pinnacle of Black womanhood, and stood strong, tall, and many times alone when confronted with some of the most overwhelming odds and the cruelest acts of inhumanity. Her methodical research and honest assessments exposed the ugly side of this country’s treatment of Blacks and placed the American conscience on trial. Many would rather not be reminded of this period in history, and is why the legacy of this phenomenal woman continues to dissolve. Meanwhile, diluted and manufactured identities of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and the Civil Rights Movement bombard our celebration of Black History. With the help of mainstream media including books, television, magazines, and even social networking sites, these rubber stamped narratives of the Black experience in the US saturate our minds to contribute in the belief that the totality of our history is relegated to non-violence, speeches, and passive-aggressive demonstrations. The legacy of Ida B. Wells challenges many of these pseudo-historical narratives and breathes pride into the deflated minds of our youth. All Blacks in the US, especially those in various realms of the media, should understand that it is on her shoulders in which we stand and it is time that we recognize and celebrate her in the books we read, movies we watch, streets we name, the t-shirts that we wear and the stories that we pass down to our children.
“… A HERITAGE TO WHICH OUR YOUNG PEOPLE WOULD BE PROUD. PROUD TO KNOW HOW THEIR FATHERS AND GRANDFATHERS HANDLED THEIR BRIEF DAY OF POWER, DURING THE RECONSTRUCTION PERIOD. YET, MOST OF THIS HISTORY IS BURIED IN OBLIVION. OUR YOUTH ARE ENTITLED TO THE ‘FACTS OF RACE-HISTORY’, WHICH ONLY THE PARTICIPANTS CAN GIVE. I AM THUS LED TO SET FORTH THE FACTS CONTAINED IN THIS VOLUME. WHICH I DEDICATE TO THEM”.
—IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT (Autobiography) (1862-1931; R.I.P.)
For more information on this amazing Black woman:
1) Read her Auto-Biography- Crusade for Justice: The Auto-Biography of Ida B. Wells
2) Watch the Documentary- Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice