Against All Odds

A new play and photo exhibition call attention to Ida B. Wells and her brave fight to end lynching in America

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Barnett, as militant as Wells, was once jailed for telling an audience that America was a “dirty rag” if it didn’t protect all of its citizens. A widower with two sons, Barnett soon proposed to Wells, who eventually agreed to marry him.

She persuaded Barnett, who was busy with his legal work, to sell The Conservator to her. Journalism, she later wrote in her autobiography, “was my first, and might be said, my only love.” A few days after the wedding, Wells took charge of the newspaper.

Typically ahead of her time, the new bride adopted a hyphenated last name, Wells-Barnett. The couple had two daughters and two sons. For Wells, as for many career women, balancing work and family was a challenge. Her friend, suffrage leader (and spinster) Susan B. Anthony, chided Wells that “since you have gotten married, agitation seems practically to have ceased.”

But while Wells struggled daily with a sense of divided duty, she still managed to speak at antilynching rallies and at women’s club conventions, even while nursing. In 1898, baby Herman went along on his mother’s five-week trip to Washington, where she discussed lynchings with President William McKinley and also lobbied Congress—unsuccessfully— for a national antilynching law.

Although Wells was probably the most prominent black female journalist and activist of her era, she did not succeed Frederick Douglass as the acknowledged leader of A the African-American community after the “grand old man” died in 1895. Today’s scholars speculate why that was so. Giddings thinks it was due mainly to her gender. Also, she spoke openly about sexuality and murder—issues deemed unbecoming of a lady in the Victorian era. For African-American women at the turn of the century, writes Patricia Schechter in Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 progressive reform “favored professional experts, well-funded national organizations, and men.”

And there’s no question that Wells’ militancy and fiery temperament worked against her. She was unusually fierce and uncompromising in her devotion to her ideals and she clashed with contemporaries along ideological lines. “Wells stayed militant at a time when other leaders believed a moderate relationship with the power structure was the most effective way of doing things,” says Giddings.

The person who had emerged to lead black America at the turn of the 20th century was Booker T. Washington, the head of the Tuskegee Institute. He not only urged blacks to improve their lives through blue-collar labor but also proposed a compromise that would leave Southern blacks segregated and disenfranchised. Wells criticized Washington’s accommodation policy, says Dorothy Sterling in Black Foremothers: Three Lives. She lacerated him for urging blacks “to be first-class people in a Jim Crow car” rather than “insisting that the Jim Crow car be abolished.” And when several blacks were killed by white rioters in North Carolina (following the murder of a black postmaster and his infant son in South Carolina), Wells charged McKinley with indifference and inaction. “We must do something for ourselves, and do it now,” she advocated. “We must educate the white people out of their 250 years of slave history.” Labeled a hothead by both Washington and McKinley supporters, Wells found herself spurned by the very organizations she had helped create.

In 1909, black and white organizers met in New York to choose a “Committee of Forty” to shape the agenda for the emerging NAACP. When they voted down Wells’ motion to make lobbying for an antilynching law a priority, she walked out. Fellow black activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who thought Wells too radical and outspoken, scratched her name from the committee. Wells was reinstated only after her supporters protested. But she would never have an easy relationship with the NAACP. When its magazine, The Crisis, published an article in 1912 about the people who campaigned against lynching, Wells was not even mentioned.

Yet she was never down for long. In 1910, she had established the Negro Fellowship League to assist poor black migrants streaming into Chicago from the rural South. She served as the first black female probation officer in Chicago. In 1913, she organized what was likely the first suffrage organization for black women in America. She helped the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a key labor union, gain a foothold in Chicago. And she inspired black women across the country to organize—a movement that gave rise to the National Association of Colored Women.

At least twice Wells tried to retire from public life, only to have new injustices lure her back into the fray. At 59, she traveled from Chicago to Little Rock, Arkansas, to investigate the case of 12 black men on death row. The men, sharecroppers who had organized a union, were convicted for conspiring to kill whites and steal their land. After the inmates told Wells that they had been tortured, she published a pamphlet that described their plight and distributed it throughout the state. Officials later pardoned and freed all 12 prisoners.


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