A Long Wait for a Distinguished Lady
Ida B. Wells Drive, formerly Congress Parkway.
By Megan McKinney
More than seven decades before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, Ida B. Wells did the same on a “Whites Only” train car in Tennessee. It took three men to eject her from her seat, and one received a painful hand bite in the process. But this was merely the beginning of the fearless civil rights pioneer’s “Crusade for Justice,” as aptly described in the title of her autobiography.
Holly Springs, Mississippi town square in the year of Ida’s birth.
Ida Bell Wells was born a slave on the Bolling farm near Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862. Her father, James Wells, was a carpenter and handyman, and her mother, Elizabeth Warrenton Wells, the Bollings’ cook. After winning freedom, the Wellses stayed in their jobs for wages until the next election. When James voted Republican, the party of Abraham Lincoln, the family was thrown off the farm, and James opened a carpentry business in town. Ida, and the seven Wells children who came after her, learned to read in school with their mother, who attended just long enough to be able to read the Bible. Ida read weekly newspapers aloud to her father, who remained illiterate but politically active and well respected in the community.
Memphis yellow fever quarantine station, 1880.
When her parents and a sibling were swept away in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, 16-year-old Ida was left to care for five younger children (another had died earlier of meningitis).
She taught grammar school in rural Mississippi, and later in Memphis, to support her family and began writing a column for a succession of black weekly newspapers. Her pieces were distributed to other papers in a rudimentary form of syndication, giving Ida a wide following and the nickname “Princess of the Press.” After buying a one-third interest in the Free Press of Memphis and becoming its editor, Ida wrote a blistering editorial criticizing the city’s education of black children. Suddenly, she found herself a full-time newspaper editor without the support of a teaching job. With her press pass and time to spare, she traveled free by train to towns in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, selling subscriptions and reporting on local events. In less than a year, she nearly tripled the circulation of the Free Press and boosted her earnings.
Memphis, Tennessee, 1880.
Meanwhile, lynching had become endemic in the South. When three black Memphis shopkeepers were murdered simply because customers were patronizing their grocery rather than that of a nearby white-owned store, Ida wrote editorials urging her Memphis readers to leave the city and move to Kansas or Oklahoma. She promoted not only a mass exodus of Memphis blacks but also the boycott of white businesses by those who stayed. Her editorials so infuriated whites that she had to keep a pistol in her desk for protection against possible violence. Finally, she further enraged white Memphis by printing an editorial stating that some “rapes” of white women by black men were consensual and that romance was possible between people of different races. When the piece was printed—causing angry vandals to break into her office, smash her printing press and destroy other property—she was fortunately in the East.
The now familiar photograph of Ida as a young woman.
Because there was a price on her head and she knew her return could incite race riots, Ida would never go back to Memphis—or even travel in the South (although she did once many years later, incognito). She settled in New York and hired detectives from the Pinkerton Agency to investigate lynchings on her behalf; she then described them in articles in the New York Age for which she was then writing. At the same time, she was also speaking against lynching to groups around the country.
A 1944 edition of the weekly paper, which published from 1887 to 1960. During the 1950s, it was the New York Age Defender.
Ida had become a national figure, and soon would be an international one. She accepted an invitation to visit Great Britain on a lecture tour, giving 50 talks in England and Scotland over a six-week period. Her impassioned speeches against lynching were calculated to rouse public opinion in an important cotton market and bring economic pressure to the American South. Upon her return to the United States, she went out to Chicago to protest the lack of a black presence at the Columbian Exposition. There she met Chicago lawyer Ferdinand Lee Barnett, a Northwestern University educated widower with an avid interest in social justice. Ten years older than Ida, Ferdinand had a prosperous legal practice and was publisher of The Conservator, the city’s first black newspaper. Ida had had many beaux through the years, but none had tempted her to form a lasting relationship. At last, here was the perfect partner, but she still had much to accomplish.
Ferdinand Lee Barnett, 10 years older than Ida, but still relatively young.
She accepted the offer of a part-time job with The Conservator, while continuing to write pamphlets attacking lynching, including Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, A Red Record and Mob Rule in New Orleans. She also established the Ida B. Wells Club in Chicago, the first black women’s civic club. When asked to return to Great Britain for another speaking tour, Ida approached the Chicago Inter-Ocean—a successful white daily paper and the only one to have taken a strong anti-lynching stand—and received an assignment to file reports during her tour. Other American papers ran articles about her British campaign based on the Inter-Ocean pieces and articles in English papers, including accounts of her feud with Woman’s Christian Temperance Union president Frances E. Willard, who was visiting England at the same time. After returning to America, she spent a year traveling through the North organizing groups to oppose lynching.
Finally, on June 27, 1895, Ida—then nearly 33—married Ferdinand Barnett, having purchased The Conservator from him only days before and becoming its editor and publisher. She hyphenated her name to Wells-Barnett and became mother to two stepchildren, 11-year-old Ferdinand Jr. and Albert, age nine, cared for by Ferdinand’s mother who lived in the same household.
Charles Barnett was born nine months after their wedding, followed by Herman, a year later, and then Ida Jr. and Alfreda. After Herman’s birth, Ida gave up the newspaper but continued her activism.
Ida with her children, Charles, Herman, Ida Jr. and Alfreda, 1909.
Her increasing militancy repelled many other black leaders, and she in turn found them—particularly Booker T. Washington—lacking in fire. Because of this militancy and her candor about rape and interracial sex, Washington, rather than Ida, succeeded Ida’s friend Frederick Douglass as “leader of the Afro-American race.” On the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, February 12, 1909, she was one of 60 prominent people nationwide who gathered in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall to plan the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, although, believing it too passive an organization, she never participated in it. Instead, she spent time passionately fighting segregation in Chicago schools and regularly visiting her own children’s classrooms.
A less ubiquitous image of Ida.
Ida was also a regular visitor of prisons, interviewing young black inmates to discover why they had run afoul of the law. Her conclusion was joblessness. In 1910, she opened the Negro Fellowship League Reading Room and Social Center on Chicago’s South State Street. In it, there was a large dorm for the homeless to sleep and a reading room stocked with Chicago newspapers, for job advertisements, and Southern papers for news of home. There were also rooms for entertainment, games and music. When private funding for the Center ended, Ida moved it to a storefront and took a job as a probation officer to support it, a position compatible with her work at the Center where she installed and monitored her parolees. When the Center closed in 1920, 1,000 men had found jobs through it and many others had found shelter there. During her Chicago years, Ida also established the Pekin Theater, a black playhouse, wrote articles for the Chicago Defender, founded the Alpha Suffrage Club and ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois state senate.
This was the Wells-Barnett residence from 1919 to 1930.
In 1919, Ida and Ferdinand moved to a mansion they bought at 3624 Grand Blvd., now Martin Luther King Drive. The house, which combined Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne architectural styles, featured a third-floor ballroom that the couple converted into an apartment for their son Herman and his wife, Hulette. In 1995, the house was designated a Chicago landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ida in later years.
Ferdinand before his 1936 death.
Ida died of kidney disease in 1931, with Ferdinand following her in 1936; however, Ida’s name lives on in her adopted city and throughout the country.
The Ida B. Wells Homes, a project of the Chicago Housing Authority, was built in 1940; a television program, “Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice,” was broadcast as a part of “The American Experience” series by Public Broadcast Service stations in 1989; a postage stamp in the Black Heritage series was issued in her honor in 1990; and the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professorship was established at Chicago’s DePaul University in 1999.
Recognition for this amazing woman continues. In July, Chicago’s Congress Parkway was renamed Ida B. Wells Drive, and there is a Chicago monument honoring her on the horizon.
Robert F. Carl