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6 Fascinating Facts About ‘Crusader for Justice’ Ida B. Wells

In honor of journalist and activist Ida B. Wells’ birthday on July 16, we look at her inspiring life and courageous fight for justice.

Crusading journalist and activist Ida B. Wells was born 155 years ago, on July 16, 1892. In honor of her birthday, here are six fascinating facts about a woman who often broke new ground while conducting a never-ceasing fight for justice.

Newspaper owner and editor

In 1889, Ida B. Wells, who was working as a columnist and schoolteacher, was asked to serve as the editor of Memphis’s Free Speech and Headlight. However, she was determined to become a co-owner as well and ended up with a one-third stake in the paper. According to biographer Paula J. Giddings, this made Wells “the only black woman of record to be an editor in chief and part owner of a major city newspaper.”

Wells excelled in her new position, even while she still continued to teach. For example, she arranged for the Free Speech to come out on pink paper, making it easier for people to recognize. And she successfully courted new subscribers; her autobiography notes that at one point during her tenure circulation climbed from 1,500 to 4,000 in less than a year.

The power of her pen

After a friend of hers was lynched in Memphis in 1892, Wells wrote an angry editorial in the Free Speech. In it, she told her fellow black citizens, “There is therefore only one thing left that we can do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.”

After this editorial appeared, hundreds of black people began to move away from Memphis. There were other factors — resolutions made at a public protest meeting also urged departure, and the Oklahoma Territory was eager for new settlers — but Wells’s words encouraged the exodus. About 20 percent of the city’s black population (approximately 6,000 people) left. Following death threats and the destruction of the Free Speech’s offices, Wells herself was among those who exited Memphis.

Wells the truth-teller

Even after leaving Memphis, Wells spent years of her career delving into the topic of lynching. For many, including some of Well’s liberal allies, it was a commonly held assumption that lynching resulted from anger about sexual attacks — but her analysis showed that less than a third of lynchings involved an accusation of rape. She also noted that sexual assault “committed by white men against Negro women and girls, is never punished by mob or the law.”

Wells’s work made it clear that lynching was being used to terrorize African Americans. Of course, some didn’t want to listen to her facts — in an editorial about Wells’s lectures abroad in 1893, the Washington Post noted she “studiously ignores the lynching of white men, and devotes all of her time to denunciation of the lynching of blacks.”

A working mother

Wells, who became Wells-Barnett when she married Ferdinand Barnett in 1895, managed to continue her activities while having a family. In 1896, the Republican Women’s State Central Committee wanted the still-nursing Wells to travel and campaign for them across Illinois. To make the journey possible, they arranged for volunteers to take care of her firstborn everywhere she went.

Wells went on to have three more children, and would step back from some of her work in order to have more time for her family. But she’d demonstrated that combining marriage, children and a career wasn’t impossible — and as she noted in her autobiography, which she started writing in 1928, “I honestly believe that I am the only woman in the United States who ever traveled throughout the country with a nursing baby to make political speeches.”

Ida B. Wells: Later in life, Ida B. Wells finds it difficult to split time between her family and her activism. She gives birth to four children: Charles, Herman, Ida and Alfreda. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Later in life, Ida B. Wells (first row, second from right) split her time between her family and her activism. She gave birth to four children: Charles, Herman, Ida and Alfreda. 

Women’s suffrage for all

Many involved in the fight for women’s suffrage discriminated against African Americans, as Wells was aware; she’d criticized Susan B. Anthony herself for “expediency” in not standing against segregation. Of course, Wells still wanted to be able to vote; in January 1913, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first such group for black women in Illinois.

In Washington, D.C. later that year, Wells was informed she couldn’t march with other Illinois delegates in a pro-women’s suffrage parade — instead, she had to go to the section for black women. Wells noted, “If the Illinois women do not take a stand now in this great democratic parade then the colored women are lost,” but she seemed to agree to walk separately. Yet during the event Wells stepped into the procession alongside her fellow delegates — integrating the march on her own.

Wells the agitator

In 1917, a group of black soldiers were court-martialed after being involved in a riot in Texas; 13 of them were hanged before they could appeal their death sentences. Wells felt these soldiers were martyrs — willing to defend their country, then killed without due process — and had buttons made to commemorate them.

This drew the attention of government agents, who came to ask Wells to stop distributing the buttons. She refused, but the interaction was added to an intelligence file about her. In 1918, Wells was selected to be a delegate to the peace conference at Versailles that followed World War I. However, she wasn’t able to go — considered “a known race agitator,” the U.S. government denied her a passport.