Historian Philip Dray, author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown, a history of lynching in America, says Wells’ work effected a deep change in racial thinking. “In an age when blacks were written about almost exclusively as a problem,” he says, “she had established lynching as a practice in which whites were the problem and blacks those in need of compassion and justice.”
One tactic that made Wells effective, says historian Paula Giddings, was that she persuaded Northern and foreign investors that lynchings were a form of anarchy, which was poison for economic development. This view threatened investments earmarked for the South. Her calls for boycotts in the South by the black labor force caused states that previously ignored lynchings to rethink their complacency.
Following Wells’ campaign, the number of lynchings went down, from a peak of 235 in 1892, to 107 by 1899, and antilynching legislation was enacted in parts of the South. “She was responsible for the first antilynching campaign in the United States,” says Giddings. “And she started it almost single-handedly.”
Wells was born a slave in holly springs, mississippi, in the midst of the Civil War in July 1862. The child’s first three years were punctuated by the sound of gunfire and the frenzy of minor skirmishes, according to Wells biographer Linda McMurry in To Keep the Waters Troubled, published in 1998. The town was captured and recaptured by opposing armies throughout the conflict, changing hands at least 59 times, writes McMurry.
Wells’ father, Jim, was the son of an enslaved woman named Peggy and her white owner. More privileged than some slaves, Jim was apprenticed out to learn carpentry.
After the war, he worked as a paid employee for the carpenter who had taught him, but lost his job when he refused to vote for the Democratic ticket of white supremacy. In a display of the grit that he evidently passed on to his daughter, he opened his own business across the street from his former employer. Ida Wells’ mother, Elizabeth, was a cook, an “outspoken woman who was constantly whipped and beaten as a slave,” says playwright Thompson. The reason she wasn’t killed outright, he avers, is that “she was known as the finest cook in the South.”
Ida Wells’ fearlessness, says Giddings, came in part from her father, a leader of the local black community who attended political meetings in spite of an ever-present threat of terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan. Mississippi’s Secretary of State during Reconstruction, James Hill, was a family friend. In due course HollySprings became home to one of two blacks in the state senate.
Ida’s forceful personality emerged at a young age. She was expelled from school after a confrontation with the institution’s president. It isn’t known what the fight was about, but as McMurry notes, “Ida’s fiery temper often got her into trouble.” The greatest crisis of her young life occurred when a yellow fever epidemic struck HollySprings in 1878 and killed both of her parents and her baby brother. Family friends arranged to place her five surviving brothers and sisters in homes around the county, but 16-year-old Ida vetoed the plan. She lengthened her skirts (to look older) and got a job as a country schoolteacher, supporting her siblings on a salary of $25 a month.
In 1881, she accepted a better-paying teaching position in Woodstock, Tennessee, even as she dreamed of a more exciting career as a “journalist, physician or actress.” She studied elocution and drama at FiskUniversity in Nashville—training that must have proved helpful when she later took to the lecture circuit.
She was 32 and already a noted journalist and activist when she married in 1895. Frederick Douglass had recruited Wells and Ferdinand Lee Barnett, a prosperous black attorney and publisher of The Conservator newspaper in Chicago, to help write a pamphlet protesting the exclusion of black participants from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.