Courage Made Her Influential: Writer Ida B. Wells’ Potent Pen

“Our job was to go to school and learn all we could.” — Ida B. Wells

Photo of Ida B. Wells-Barnett by Mary Garrity, circa 1893. Public domain.

Last week when I shared A Little Girl’s Dream on my blog, it prompted me to become more familiar with the stories of African Americans who were early pioneers in the pursuit of freedom and justice. Many of their names were familiar to me but I knew very few of their stories, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman preeminent examples.

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Ida B. Wells and family, 1909. Public domain.

While doing research this week for Black History Month (Feb 1–29) I came across a list titled the 100 Greatest Books by African American Women. It was an enlightening read. This blog post today on Dr. Martin Luther King Day is about one of these women, Ida Bell Wells.

Ida Wells was born into slavery in 1862 during the Civil War in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her parents were slaves till the 13th Amendment freed them after the war. In 1877 a yellow fever epidemic killed both of her parents while she was away visiting her grandmother.

The authorities would have split the family but she said she could raise her younger siblings, and took a test that enabled her to get a teaching job. Her only previous experience was teaching her younger brothers and sister.

One day Ida took a seat on a train but was forcibly removed to the smoking car. She sued the railroad and actually won a $500 settlement. The headline in the papers read, “Darkey Damsel Gets Damages.”

Naturally, the railroad didn’t like that outcome and took the matter to a higher court where the decision was reversed.

Ida wrote about these experiences for her church newspaper The Living Way, and even though she never received the money, she saw the impact her writing had on people who reacted to what she wrote. She was learning the power of the written word. In 1889 she became part owner of a black-owned newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight. For two more years she also continued teaching until she was dismissed for writing about conditions at the black schools.

Ida learned early the power of the written word, but it was her courage that most stands out. She wrote about what she saw in order that others would know what was going on.

Ida had friends who ran a black grocery store called The People’s Grocery, which was in competition with a white grocery store. An incident occurred which escalated. Three black men were taken to jail. Then, in the middle of the night 75 masked men came, took them from the Shelby County Jail and shot them dead.

“This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property.”

It was this event that led Ida to begin investigating and writing about lynchings. After writing an editorial about another incident, her newspaper office was burned to the ground.

Ida was in New York at the time her office was looted and destroyed. She was urged not to return and began writing from up North. She later moved to Chicago.

In 1892 Ida Wells began publishing her lynching research in pamphlet form It was titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. The following year her lynching research was compiled in a book titled The Red Record. Frederick Douglass wrote the introduction.

She was invited to speak in England and Scotland. She spoke with eloquence and passion about the unfair treatment of blacks. Her pamphlets included disturbing photos of actual lynchings.

Ida claimed that “ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, [through lynching] without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution.” She believed that the massive rise in such killing after the Civil War was because previous to the war Blacks had more value as “property” of the slaveholders.

Ida found support from white women involved with the battle for women’s rights, becoming friends with Susan B. Anthony and others in the movement.

In 1928 she began working on her autobiography, but it was never finished. She died in 1930 after an influential career. Her story was published posthumously four decades later in 1970. For more than half a century she used her writing skills to promote freedom, safety, and justice.

Information for this brief bio came from the Walter Dean Myers’ book
Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told and Wikipedia.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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