Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, better known as Ida B. Wells, was an African American writer and activist famous for her work campaigning against lynching in the South.
A skilled writer and speaker, she traveled the United States and Europe lecturing on women’s and civil rights, and wrote an influential anti-lynching pamphlet called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases.”
Early Life and Introduction to Activism
Ida B. Wells was born a slave in 1862 in Mississippi, but was freed along with her family a year later when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
Ida’s father, a master carpenter, was interested in furthering his own education, and Ida followed his footsteps in attending nearby Shaw University (now called Rust College). She held strong political views even then, and was soon expelled after a confrontation with the president, later blaming her own “tempestuous, rebellious, hard headed willfulness.”
When Ida was only 16, her parents died of yellow fever, leaving her to care for her 6 younger siblings. She went to work as a teacher, where she was dismayed to discover that white teachers made $80 a month to her $30.
She became even more interested in fighting for equal rights for African Americans and women.
Ida B. Wells’ Anti-Lynching Activism
While living in Memphis, Tennessee, Ida befriended three black men who ran a successful grocery store nearby. One day an angry mob invaded her friends’ store, because they thought the black men were trying to compete with a white store across the street. Three white men were shot and injured in the altercation.
Ida’s three friends were blamed and thrown in jail, and a lynch mob soon stormed the jail and murdered all three.
After the death of her friends, Ida felt driven to investigate and document lynches and their causes. She researched public records and press accounts of lynchings, keeping meticulous records of all the facts. She raised $500 to publish the results in a pamphlet called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases.”
After publishing “Southern Horrors,” Ida began traveling the United States to speak on lecture tours. She also took two tours to Europe in 1893 and 1894. Her European audiences were shocked to learn the extent of violence against African Americans in the South, and her lectures helped to rally anti-lynching groups in Europe, pressuring the US government to take action.
“Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases”
In “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases,” Ida showed how the increasing epidemic of lynching was a way for whites to control or punish blacks.
An important historical document, “Southern Horrors” is significant for its display of rhetoric skill, sophisticated analysis, and use of detailed facts from irrefutable sources such as the public press. At a time when rhetoric was considered to be a man’s skill, her work stands out for appealing to reason, not emotion as women were expected to.
Ida B. Wells Quotes
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
"One had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap." Ida B. Wells, anti-lynching activist #herstory Click To Tweet
“The miscegenation laws of the South only operate against the legitimate union of the races; they leave the white man free to seduce all the colored girls he can, but it is death to the colored man who yields to the force and advances of a similar attraction in white women. White men lynch the offending Afro-American, not because he is a despoiler of virtue, but because he succumbs to the smiles of white women.”
“Brave men do not gather by thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense.”
“No nation, savage or civilized, save only the United States of America, has confessed its inability to protect its women save by hanging, shooting, and burning alleged offenders.”
“If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service.”
“Although lynchings have steadily increased in number and barbarity during the last twenty years, there has been no single effort put forth by the many moral and philanthropic forces of the country to put a stop to this wholesale slaughter.”
“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.”
In this eagerly awaited biography by Paula J. Giddings, author of the groundbreaking book When and Where I Enter, which traced the activisthistory of black women in America, the irrepressible personality of Ida B. Wells surges out of the pages. With meticulous research and vivid rendering of her subject, Giddings also provides compelling portraits of twentieth-century progressive luminaries, black and white, with whom Wells worked during some of the most tumultuous periods in American history. Embattled all of her activist life, Wells found herself fighting not only conservative adversaries but icons of the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements who sought to undermine her place in history.