Women in HerStory

Women In HerStory: Ida B. Wells Barnett

(1862-1931) Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, months before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

She was the oldest of eight children. When her parents died in 1880 as a result of a yellow fever plague in Holly Springs, Wells took it upon herself to become a teacher in Holly Springs in order to support her younger siblings.

In spite of hardship, Wells was able to complete her studies at Rust College and in 1888 became a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee.

While living in Memphis, Wells became an editor and co-owner of a local black newspaper called “The Free Speech and Headlight.” She wrote her editorials under the pen-name “Iola.”

When a respected black store owner and friend of Barnett was lynched in 1892, Wells used her paper to attack the evils of lynching and encouraged the black townsmen of Memphis to go west.

While attending an editor’s convention in New York, Wells received word not to return to Memphis because her life would be in danger. Wells took her cause to England to gain support and earned a reputation as a fiery orator and courageous leader of her people.

Upon returning to the United States, she settled in Chicago and formed the Women’s Era Club, the first civic organization for African-American women. The name was later changed to the Ida B. Wells Club in honor of its founder.

She never forgot her crusade against lynching, and, in 1895 Wells published “A Red Record,” which recorded race lynching in America.

In June of 1895 she married Ferdinand Barnett, a prominent Chicago attorney. Wells-Barnett kept active until the birth of her second son, Herman. She resigned as president of the Ida B. Wells Club and devoted her time to raising her two young sons and subsequently her two daughters.

However, by the start of the 20th century the racial strife in the country was disturbing. Lynching and race riots abounded across the nation.

In 1909, Barnett was asked to be a member of the “Committee of 40,” which established the groundwork for the organization now known as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the oldest civil rights organization in the country.

Wells-Barnett continued her tireless crusade for equal rights for African-Americans until her death in 1931.

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