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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Crusader for Justice: Ida B. Wells

     Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s name came up over and over as I researched the history of the women’s suffrage movement and the history of late 19th and early 20th century America. Although I haven’t included her as an actual character in a novel, I have referred to her in many of my writings. In these waning days of 2021’s Black History Month, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to one of the African American women I most admire.

     Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, as the Civil War was raging. She was one of eight children. After the war, her parents became active in Reconstruction Era politics. They recognized the importance of education and enrolled young Ida in Shaw College (later Rust College) in Holly Springs, but she was expelled after starting a dispute with the college president.

     When Ida was sixteen, both of her parents and her infant brother died in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic. She convinced a nearby school administrator that she was 18 in order to win a job as a teacher in a Black elementary school. With the help of friends and other family members, she and her paternal grandmother were able to keep the rest of her siblings together.

     In 1882, after her grandmother had a stroke and one of her sisters died, Ida’s brothers found work as carpentry apprentices. She and her remaining sisters moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with their aunt. There, Ida worked as a teacher and attended Fisk University, Lemoyne-Owen College and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1884

     After college, she continued to teach school in Memphis and began writing articles attacking Jim Crow policies under the pen name, “Iola.” A local newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight, invited her to write articles for them in 1889. She refused unless she was made an equal partner with the two male owners. They agreed and she bought a one-third interest in the enterprise. There she wrote about racial and political issues while continuing to teach at the elementary school. She was fired from her teaching job in1891 for being an outspoken critic of the conditions in the segregated schools.

     The 1892 lynching of a friend and his two business associates prompted Ida to investigate and collect information on similar cases. She traveled around the United States and in Britain, giving lectures on the horrific practice, especially in the South, of lynching Black men.  During this time, she also published articles and pamphlets condemning lynchings.  One of her editorials about the circumstances of her friend’s case enraged local whites, who mobbed her office and burned down her press. Luckily, she was in New York at the time or she might not have survived. Subsequently, she stayed in the north due to unrelenting death threats, and a few months later she moved to Chicago.

     There she met Ferdinand Barnett, an attorney and journalist who had founded Chicago’s first Black newspaper, The Conservator. He was also an established activist in their shared passion for civil rights. They married in 1895. Ida was one of the first American women to keep her maiden name. 

     In addition to Ferdinand’s two children from a previous marriage, the couple had four together. Throughout her life, Ida balanced her career in social activism with her family. She established the first kindergarten in Chicago in her local church, prioritizing Black children for admission.

     In addition to her crusade for racial equality, she worked tirelessly for the women’s rights movement. She organized the first civic club for African American women in Chicago and participated in the meeting that founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.


      Ida was strongly committed to the campaign for women’s suffrage. She believed that women should be enfranchised, but she also saw the vote as a way for Black women to elect African Americans, regardless of gender, to influential political offices. A long-time member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Ida attended the 1913 woman’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. Fearing that many white Southern women would refuse to march with Black women, the organizers decided that the African American women should march in the back.

      Refusing to follow this directive, Ida stood on the sidelines of the parade route. When the unit from Illinois approached, she stepped into the street and marched with the women of her state’s suffrage delegation.

     The U.S. government labeled her a dangerous “race agitator” and placed her under surveillance during World War I. Despite the risk, she continued traveling the country and writing articles in pursuit of civil rights. Throughout the 1920s, she pursued Urban reform in Chicago and participated in Republican party politics. However, she was disappointed by the Hoover administration’s support of segregation. In 1930, she ran as an independent for the Illinois Senate but was defeated.

     Ida began writing her autobiography in 1928 but was unable to finish it before she passed away on March 25, 1931. Her autobiography was edited by her daughter and published posthumously in 1970 as Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.

 Ann Markim








  1. Thank you for sharing some of the history of this impressive woman.

  2. I'm a big fan of Wells' -- I used to teach some of her writings alongside Charles Chesnutt's novel The Marrow of Tradition. I have Paula Gidding's biography in my TBR pile.

    1. So glad to hear that you're teaching students about this remarkable woman. I had never heard of her until a few years ago. The more I've read about her, the more my respect for her has grown.

  3. It's remarkable how often the people who effect real change for the better in society are labelled dangerous radicals. It's even more remarkable how quickly they become obscure after their death. I'm only sorry that people still have to fight this remarkable woman's cause.

  4. Your words are so true. Thanks for the comment.

  5. It's difficult enough to be female in this world where women are treated like second class people, objectified and preyed upon, but to be a woman of color makes lives even worse. I will not pretend to know what women of color have suffered. I have to respect what these woman have gone through and their efforts to make change for which they have suffered so much in doing. But I know a small part what it's like to be judged inadequate on gender alone. And so, this article about a black woman who fought against this prejudice and made inroads for the rest of us delights me.
    A wonderful article, Ann.

  6. Thank you. She is a very inspiring woman.