BHM: Ida B. Wells

I have been sorely remiss in keeping up with positive contributions to my Black Herstory posts. In all honesty, researching the quilt post I began over a week ago has really bogged me down b/c I do not know how to do justice to so many artists in a forum such as a blog. Blogs are supposed to be short, and tho mine never are, the quilt post is that much longer . . . But it is coming nonetheless. So today, to make up for the missing posts on the 16, 18,19, and 21 I give you four posts on black women leaders. Each of these women came to mind while writing the NY Post response piece that I began on Thursday and finally feel was completed on Friday. They are: Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Julia Carson, and Hallie Quinn Brown. This post is dedicated to the powerful presence of all of these black women leaders who endured the dual oppressions of racism and sexism and often the triple threat of classism.


Ida B. Wells


Ida B. Wells was a powerful black feminist voice whose contemporaries respected and looked to her for knowledge and example. She was an educator, journalist, social activists, and political thinker who has seldom been given her historical due.

Ms. Wells was born in 1862 to slave parents who gained their freedom with the emancipation proclamation. Her father insured that both Wells and her mother were enrolled in the first African American school in their area so that everyone in the family would be educated equally. He also taught her by example that the franchise was a right for all people and that black people had the right to vote their conscience without influence from white employers; he lost his job by refusing to vote according to his employers wishes, and responded to the loss by opening his own business.

When she was 14, she took on the parenting of her siblings in order to hold the family together after her parents and youngest brother died of yellow fever. The epidemic had been allowed to ravage African American communities and Irish labor camps unchecked by the massive efforts to stop it in non-ethnic white communities and had been blamed on immigrant populations once again combining eugenicist visions of the nation that put the entire nation at risk.

All though Wells had to drop out of high school to keep the family together, she became a school teacher and later began attending classes at Fisk University. It was there that she got a reputation for being an outspoken feminist since she shared her ideas with little regard for how they contradicted both race and gender theories in circulation nor how contradicted men on campus might impact on her “marriage prospects.” Wells was far more interested in equality then appearing marriageable and got the last laugh against her critics because she not only became an important writer and oratory for women and poc rights but also married.

Women’s Rights

Wells was a tireless activist for women’s rights, joining and leading Women’s clubs as well as working with mainstream feminists and feminist organizations.

Among her many causes was women’s suffrage. And though she is not included in the recognized canon of suffragettes, Wells helped start Alpha suffrage Club in Chicago.  She also marched in the march on Washington for universal suffrage in 1913. Unfortunately, National Women’s Suffrage Association asked that she and the black women’s contingent she had encouraged to come with her, “hold up the rear,” for fear that black women’s presence would turn white men who needed to vote for women’s rights against the movement.  Wells refused.

She also was a close friend of Susan B. Anthony’s. The two met in New York while Wells was working on Suffrage issues. They worked closely together discussing both African American and women’s rights. Wells sided with her against Washington when he supported black male suffrage over universal suffrage, all though she did not agree with Anthony and others who said they would no longer fight for the “negro question” because of his decision. Both camps had failed to see the connections between oppressions that Wells was able to see because of her place at the intersections. Some say that Wells and Anthony’s relationship began to fall apart when Anthony asked Wells to tone down her radical politics, particularly with regards to lynching.  Most, however, agree that their friendship ended when Anthony disparaged Wells marriage and encouraged her to stay single b/c she felt Wells could not be both activist and wife. Wells did retire from politics for a while after marrying, but quickly returned to political writing and social justice activism and stuck with it throughout her life.

Black men also challenged Wells activism. When she was made Financial Secretary of the African American Council, male leaders suggested Wells would be better able to serve as head of a Women’s Auxiliary to the Council. Wells rebuked them, pointing out all of her vast accomplishments as an organizer and national and international advocate for both women’s and black people’s rights. She actively criticized their sexism for criticizing her appointment and for assuming that women’s issues should be seperated out and made auziliary to racial equality. Ultimately, she retained her original apointment.

Her work also encouraged white feminists to join in racial justice causes. Wells good friend Jane Adams helped her block segregation in Chicago schools and Catherine Impey chose her and then helped fund her trip to England to raise awareness about lynching abroad. Wells was also sponsored on that trip by the National Association of Colored Women.  Wells overwhelming support amongst women for her anti-lynching campaign spoke volumes about the commitment of radical white feminists to refuse to have their empowerment and desires manipulated to further white supremacy. When Wells warned in her Memphis anti-lynching writing, “be careful lest an unfavorable picture be drawn about white women,” she wanted to draw a connection between the oppression of black people and the oppression of women in which both are ultimately controlled by the needs of white male hegemony; if blacks can be lynched for transgression, white women can also be punished for it by those same angry mobs, she seemed to say, so that our lots are tied together. Her warning also shed light on to how white women’s safety was crafted as the fear of the black man instead of actually addressing their inequality at the hands of intraracial violence and gender discrimination. The women who supported Wells campaign understood this and fought to take back both their sexuality and their rights and to refuse to be implicated in violence against poc in their name.

Wells helped establish several women’s clubs to encourage women’s equality and leadership. In 1893 she started the Women’s Era Club. It was the first civic organization of African American women in the United States and encouraged black women to participate in politics, suffrage efforts, and civil rights. She was also one of the founding members of the National Association of Colored Women which she hoped would unite women’s local efforts around the nation into a powerful national struggle for women’s equality. In Chicago, she created a women’s society that would later be named after her.  They focused primarily on education and established several kindergartens in black communities. They also fought successfully against segregation.

Wells is perhaps best known for defending her rights as a black woman on the Laides Railcar in 1884. In 1884 Wells became the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat on public transportation and end up in court over it. While riding the train, Wells was asked by the conductor to move to the “colored car.” She refused, citing  the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that barred companies from discrimination in education, transportation, and hotels. When the conductor made to move her, she bit him. According to court documents and her biography, it took 3 conductors to move her to the other car while she cried out and white passengers cheered at her abuse. Wells successfully sued the train car company over her treatment. (She later lost the case on appeal, when the court decided she had intentionally violated the segregation of train in order to sue, a tactic that would later be considered by the civil rights movement but for which Wells was not in fact guilty.)

Her case was important for two reasons:

  1. it was the first civil rights case brought by a black person after the repeal of the Civil Right Act in Plessy vs. Ferguson (established the legal myth of seperate but equal)
  2. It successfully challenged the legal definition of “lady” or “woman” which had been historically denied black women since the Celia rape case (Celia defended herself against a slave owner who tried to rape her and was found guilty of murder b/c neither black women nor slave women were seen to have the right to bodily integrity afforded “real women”)

Since Wells was ejected from the “Ladies Car” she argued that her rights as a woman had been violated. When she won the lower court ruling it marked a decided shift in the legal definition of womanhood that should be canonized in this history alongside Sojourner Truth’s question about why neither certain feminist suffragists and mainstream society could not see her as a woman and Celia’s fatal decision to exert her rights as one. And the fact that this progression has not made it into the feminist canon speaks to the ongoing struggle over the definition of “woman” in mainstream feminism.

This incident pushed Wells into the spotlight and she used it to become an accomplished journalist. She wrote passionately about both race and gender issues throughout her life. She began her career as the Editor for the Evening Star and a writer for the Living Way, where she wrote under the pen name Lola. But soon she helped start her own paper Free Speech and Headlight, along with Reverend R. Nightingale, where she wrote scathing political pieces about race and gender and their intersections, particularly with regards to lynching and school reform. The latter got her fired from her teaching position.

Anti-Lynching Campaign

In 1892, Wells was thrust into anti-lynching activism when 3 of her friends were lynched as part of the People’s Grocery Company struggle. People’s Grocery had started because white grocery owners in Memphis discriminated against black customers, raising prices, selling them bad or soon to go bad items, and disparaging them, common practices in the period and continued in some local groceries today.  People’s Grocery was black owned and wanted to give black people the same right to fresh produce, untainted meat and milk, and respect when shopping as dominant culture enjoyed; as their popularity amongst black patrons grew, racism trumped capitalism and the Memphis owners went to shake down the store owners rather than treat black customers with respect. In the resulting conflict, one of the white attackers was shot and injured and all three black store owners were arrested, punished for defending themselves while black. They were dragged from the jail and lynched in the middle of the night.

Wells used Free Speech to argue that black people should not stay in a town where they were neither respected nor safe but should move to places where they could thrive and prosper so that they could fight against lynching and other injustices on equal footing.  Despite the fact that her offices were destroyed because of resulting economic drain on the Memphis community, as black people took her advice and left town, and organized boycotts of white owned businesses, Wells continued to write about lynching and became a key advocate in the anti-lynching effort. The threats against her life, including the hanging of her in effigy on a Memphis railcar, frightened but did not silence her.

Wells spent a considerable amount of her time researching lynching in the coming years. She went to the sites of lynchings, despite great risk, and interviews community members about the events, examined the sites and evidence if possible, and documented the initial impact lynchings had. In the late 1890s and early 1990s she published several pamphlets on her lynching research. Her most famous was Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892)  but also included  A Red Record (1895),  a case study of Georgia called simply Lynch Law in Georgia (1899) and a case study of New Orleans and the Robert Charles Lynching/burning,  Mob Rule (1890). These publications pointed to the fallacies behind the myth of the black rapist that had justified so many lynchings. More than that they pointed to the effort of white supremacists to stop black political and economic aspirations through lynchings, some times using lynchings to shut down whole towns or areas of towns and take over the land and businesses established there by black people. As you can read for yourself, or listen here, the Georgia pamphlet also continued Wells argument that the link between mob violence and lynching was also designed to remind black people that they had no real legal standing in the U.S. and that they had “better not fight back.” She was forced out of Memphis for arguing that every African American home should include a shotgun over the mantle to protect against the real violence in Southern communities, lynch mobs designed to stop black people from thriving and claiming their equality on the political, economic, and social stage.

She went to England in 1892 at the request of white feminist Catherine Impey. Impey felt that Wells would be the best speaker to explain and speak out against lynching to the British. Neither Wells powerful speaking skills nor her photo of smiling children at the foot of a lynched black man swayed her British distractors however, and they continued to believe that lynching was either not real or grossly exaggerated. While she was well received at many places, protests of her talks continued to dog her appearances. Wells answered critics with documented accounts of lynching that she had collected herself as well as other research she had done to write her articles and pamphlets. In the end, she helped provide the information and concern necessary for the British to start several anti-lynching organizations and lead a succesful boycott of U.S. Southern cotton.

However, while abroad she was asked to write for the Daily Inter-Ocean, the only paper willing to take a consistent stand against lynching in N. America. The request made Wells the first African American woman to be a paid correspondent of a mainstream white newspaper.

Wells not only continued to write ans speak out against lynching, she also actively lobbied the government to protect the rights and lives of black citizens. Not only did she encourage black people and women’s civil participation arguing that suffrage would help curb lynching by shifting the political dynamic that lynching was trying to stop from shifting, she also met with the president in 1898 to ask for a national bill against lynching.

Political Activism

In her later life, Wells used her writing to shed light on other forms of social injustice against both women and the black community. She wrote about women’s rights and the need for women to be represented in politics. To prove her point, she ran for Illinois State Senate in 1930. Her bid was unsucessful but motivated other women to participate in civic life.

She also wrote a series of articles on race riots first in Chicago and then in Arkansas. Her writing helped form a piece of a larger body of critical writing on the growing violence against black share croppers and the union movement for farmers in the South. Hundreds of African Americans, and 5 white people, lost their lives in mob violence against share croppers rights.

In 1909, Wells was asked to become a member of the “Committe of 40,” 40 prominent African American activists who would later help start the NAACP. She was one of two women to sign a decision to form the NAACP and spoke out about the importance of having a national level organization to continue the fight against racial discrimination in the country and provide needed help with African American education.

All though she continued to support the need for national level collective organizing, she ultimately distanced herself from the NAACP over disputes about radicalism between her and DuBois. In the hopes of fomenting more radical and far reachng politics, she started the Negro Fellowship League. They focused on housing, employment, social and recreational activities, and civil rights. When they fell into financial trouble in 1913, Well donated her own salary to the cause.

Radical Branding

ida_b_wellsplaque(by artist Robert Shetterly)

No, not like the ways colleges and non-profits buy into corporate models and try to create name recognition through marketing of certain colors, letters, or logos. Ida B. Wells activism put her on the radar of the U.S. government. When she aligned herself against the racial mainstreaming of Booker T. Washington and toward the radical black pan-africanism of Marcus Garvey, the U.S. government labeled her a radical and put her on the Secret Service watch list where her name remained until her death. (It was a far more complimentary place than that afforded to her by artist Judy Chicago, who wrote Wells name on the floor amongst the other women of color she considered feminist but not feminist enough to garner 1 of the 2 place settings allotted women of color at the 39 seat table for “guests of honor” in her famous feminist art installation or that of President Obama, who included only one woman in his list of important civic leaders in his 2009 declaration of this years black history month as a month to honor black civic leaders – Chisholm and Hamer didn’t make the list either)



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