The Life and Achievements of Ida B. Wells

by Flaminia Luck

Ida B. Wells is one of the heroines within the Civil Rights Movement who deserves a lot more praise and recognition. Like many of the trailblazing icons of movements that challenged authority, Ida B. Wells was ahead of her time. 

Ida B. Wells

Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, at the height of the Civil War. When Wells’ parents died in a yellow fever epidemic, she was forced to care for her five siblings by becoming a teacher at the age of only 16. She relocated to Memphis, Tennessee and whilst in Memphis she published some articles that criticised the quality of education available to African American children. Even though she wrote the articles under a pen name, Iola, her teaching contract was not renewed and she turned to journalism instead.

She co-owned and wrote for the ‘Memphis Free Speech and Headlight’ newspaper. She wrote about issues such as racial segregation and voter suppression in the American South. At that time, she was one of the few Black women journalists and by the 1890s, she had established a solid reputation for herself.

Like many people who went on to do great things, the turning point in Wells’ life occurred in 1892 after a series of brutal lynchings. One of the three African American men murdered in the lynchings was Thomas Moss. Moss was the owner of a successful grocery shop and a prominent businessman. He was also a close friend of Wells.

Moss embodied the philosophy of prominent African American thinkers at the time such as Booker T. Washington who believed that education and entrepreneurship were the key to eventually achieving racial equality. But even his financial success and elevated social status had not protected Thomas Moss from the brutality of white lynch mobs. He had done everything he had to do and it was still not enough. Following his killing, Wells left the South and moved to Chicago. From the Windy City, Wells began her antilynching campaign and began to investigate It properly. She used investigative reporting techniques such as studying police records, newspaper reports and conducting interviews. 

From her findings, she realised that lynching was not, as commonly thought, a reaction to criminal activity, but something else completely. She concluded that it was a deliberate tactic to punish African Americans who competed with whites. Black-owned businesses which threatened the success of their white counterparts posed a threat to the social and economic supremacy of whites. In the case of Thomas Moss, his grocery shop had begun to compete and divert business from the white-owned grocery shop across the street. The white grocery shop owner had been one of the key instigators in the lynch mob against Moss and his two employees. Lynching was ultimately a means of control.

Wells published these findings in a pamphlet. In response to her publication, she received death threats and a white mob burned her printing press to the ground. To ensure her safety, Wells relocated again to New York City. She republished in another pamphlet under the name ‘Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases’. Her findings shocked the nation and established Wells as a respected and renowned investigative journalist. She then built on her first finding and published ‘The Red Record’ in 1895.

Her writing drew international attention and she travelled to Europe where she delivered speeches on racist violence in the American South. 

Back home, Wells was also one of the founding members of the N.A.A.C.P. She challenged the segregationist practices and even led a delegation to the White House to protest against discriminatory workplace policies. It is also important to remember that Ida B. Wells did all this; the activism, the journalism, the organising, as a disenfranchised Black woman herself. She risked her life to collect the information on lynching in a time of fear, intimidation and the ever-present threat of racial violence. 

While she is not quite remembered as much as she should be, in 2020, she was honoured with a posthumous Pulitzer Special Citation Award ‘For her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.’

Ida B. Wells in 1920 (© Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Ida B. Wells returned to Chicago where she died at age of 68 in 1931.

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Ida B. Wells

About the Author:

Flaminia Luck is a History and International Relations graduate from King’s College London. As an Ambassador of the Holocaust Educational Trust, she is particularly interested in using the lessons of history and its contemporary relevance to modern society to educate people about the dangers of racism and discrimination. 

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