Against All Odds

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

Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells Wikimedia Commons

One September day in 1883, Ida B. Wells stepped aboard a train in Memphis. She was 21 and a public school teacher. After she took a seat and opened a book to read, a conductor demanded that she move to a car designated for black passengers. She refused.

When the conductor grabbed her arm, Wells bit his hand. Hard. “I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back,” she would later recall. “As he had already been badly bitten, he didn’t try it again by himself.” Though she was no more than about five feet tall, it took three men to roust her from the seat. Still, she refused to sit in the other car and got off the train at the next stop.

Wells sued the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railroad in 1884 for violating equal accommodation statutes—and, incredibly, won. But the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict in a ruling that would lay the groundwork for the “separate but equal” doctrine that kept racial segregation in place for decades.

Her ordeal, with its intriguing parallels to Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience aboard a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 72 years later, not only reveals Wells’ fierce will but also essentially launched her lifelong, often dangerous struggle to secure the rights of African-Americans. This fearless woman would do more than anyone to curtail the terrorizing of blacks by lynch mobs. She would also publish a newspaper, help found a number of African-American self-help organizations—including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—advance women’s rights and run for the Illinois Senate. Although she pioneered tactics that would become crucial to the civil rights movement decades later, she is not nearly as well known as contemporaries Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. But that is changing.

A traveling exhibition of photographs of lynching victims—profoundly disturbing images that have torn at old wounds and stirred controversy—has called attention to the wave of atrocities that Wells risked her life to stop. Joseph Jordan, curator of the exhibition Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, on view in Atlanta through December, says Wells “stands apart as the most recognizable and effective antilynching crusader in history.”

A new play that sketches and celebrates Wells’ life, Constant Star, has been staged in several cities, including Washington, D.C., Hartford and, last month, Pittsburgh. (It goes to Palm Beach, Florida, next March.) Playwright Tazewell Thompson says he was moved to investigate the “insane lawlessness” of lynchings and to write about Wells’ crusade against them after viewing a 1989 documentary, Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice. “It haunted me that this tiny woman had to become the drum majorette for this campaign,” says Thompson, a theater dis rector. “Wells believed it was a land of laws, and by God she was going to see to it that everyone was treated as if ‘all men are created equal.’”

And a Wells biography scheduled for publication next year is expected to shine more light on Wells’ uncompromising vision, which rankled some civil rights figures and partly accounts for why, until recently, she has not received the recognition her achievements warrant. “She did not hold her tongue at all. And she didn’t like to follow,” says the book’s author, Paula J. Giddings, a professor of Afro-American Studies at SmithCollege in Massachusetts. No less important, Wells has received only limited attention in academia, where the reputations of most historical figures are formed. “Black women tend to be marginalized both in Afro-American studies and in women’s studies,” Giddings adds.

After slavery ended in the united states in 1865, Southern states enacted several Jim Crow laws denying equality to African-Americans. White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens. Racist ideology dressed up as “science” depicted blacks as lascivious and inferior. It was in this charged atmosphere that some of the most heinous crimes ever committed in this country were sanctioned by the white community at large, and even by law officials themselves.

Lynching—the kidnapping, torturing and killing of men, women and children by vigilante mobs—became commonplace. Between 1880 and 1930, approximately 3,220 black Americans were reported lynched, along with perhaps 723 whites. The 1880s ushered in a dramatic and prolonged rise in the percentage of African-American victims. These lawless executions, blind to any constitutional guarantee of due process, often attracted large crowds. Some spectators brought along children and even picnic baskets, as though the horrific murder of another human being constituted entertainment, or worse, edification. It was the brutal lynching of a friend in 1892 that rallied Wells, then 29, to the antilynching cause.

By then, Wells had become a full-time journalist. When a series of articles she had written about her court case against the railroad was picked up by African-American newspapers across the country (and eventually led to a column), Wells knew what she wanted to do with her life. She bought part-ownership in the Free Speech, a black Memphis newspaper, and became its coeditor. “She has plenty of nerve, and is as sharp as a steel trap,” said T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age, a leading black newspaper.

One of her closest friends was Thomas Moss, who owned a grocery store in Memphis with two other black men. A white businessman, angered by competition from the new store, had pressured town officials to close it down. When a scuffle broke out between black and white youths near the black-owned store, he and other white residents threatened to destroy it. After a group of white men marching toward the store at night were fired upon and at least one was wounded, police rounded up and jailed more than a hundred blacks. But Moss and his two partners were “carried a mile north of the city limits and horribly shot to death,” Wells wrote in Free Speech. A local white newspaper reported Moss’ last words: “Tell my people to go West—there is no justice for them here.”

The murders devastated Wells, who was godmother to the Mosses’ daughter. “The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival,” she wrote in an editorial. Echoing Moss’ last words, Wells and other black leaders encouraged black Memphians to leave the city, which, she said “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.”

Thousands of blacks joined the “Exodusters” migrating to Oklahoma and other points west. Wells urged those who remained to boycott streetcars and white businesses. Railway officials, assuming that black passengers were staying away out of a mistaken belief that the electric cars were hazardous, pleaded with Wells to tell her followers the cars were safe. “Keep up the good work,” she told her readers.

Driven by anger and grief, Wells plunged into a wideranging investigation of lynching in America, documenting the circumstances of more than 700 incidents over the previous decade. She traveled alone across the South to the spots where lynching parties had shot, hanged and burned victims, taking sworn statements from witnesses, scrutinizing records and local newspaper accounts, sometimes hiring private investigators. She studied photographs of mutilated bodies hanging from tree limbs and of lynchers picking over the bones and ashes of burned corpses.

Her findings would astonish many Americans, appall others and outrage white supremacists. She aroused the strongest ire by venturing into the taboo realm of sexuality. The excuse frequently used for the lynching of black men was that they had raped white women. But her research showed that rape had never been alleged in two-thirds of the lynchings, and when it was, the “rape” was often alleged after a secret relationship was discovered or following nothing more than a suggestive look. In one editorial, Wells dared suggest that many of the white women had had consensual sex with the men.

Wells was en route to New York when white newspapers reprinted the editorial. Vandals ransacked the Free Speech offices, and fearing for his life, her coeditor fled the city. Racist whites promised to lynch Wells if she returned. A Memphis paper, the Evening Scimitar, threatened the editorial’s author, whom the paper believed to be a man. “Tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake . . . brand him on the forehead with a hot iron, and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.” Wells, who had armed herself with a pistol after Moss’ lynching, vowed to die fighting. “I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked,” she would later write. “If I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”

T. Thomas Fortune met with Wells during her trip and convinced her to remain in New York City. There she parlayed the subscription list of the now-defunct Free Speech into part-ownership of the New York Age, which published the findings of her investigations. She also published a pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynching in All Its Phases, for which renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass, then in his 70s, penned the preface. “Brave Woman!” he wrote, “If American conscience were only half alive . . . a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.”

Her crusade gaining momentum, Wells toured Great Britain in 1893 and 1894, speaking in packed churches and lecture halls. The “sweet-faced” orator spoke with “singular refinement, dignity and self-restraint,” wrote a London observer. “Nor have I ever met any agitator so cautious and unimpassioned in speech. But by this marvelous self-restraint itself, she moved us all the more profoundly.”

She so impressed the Duke of Argyll, Sir John Gorst, that he became the founding president of the London Anti- Lynching Committee, the first of many such chapters in Great Britain and the United States. The London membership included the archbishop of Canterbury, members of Parliament and the editors of England’s most prestigious papers. On a dare by Southern papers in the United States and to get at the truth about lynching in America, Sir John and his committee visited the United States in the summer of 1894. The mere presence of the British visitors, who threatened a boycott of U.S. goods, infuriated white Americans. Governor John Altgeld of Illinois said Southerners should retaliate by visiting Ireland “to stop the outrages there.”

As it happened, the British delegation was touring the States when a lynching party killed six black men near Memphis. “If Ida B. Wells had desired anything to substantiate the charges against the south,” noted an Ohio newspaper, “nothing more serviceable could have come to hand.” That incident marked a sort of turning point. Even the Evening Scimitar, which had called for lynching Wells herself two years before, now sounded contrite. “Everyone of us is touched with blood guiltiness in this matter,” the paper editorialized.

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.

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.

At 67, saying she was tired of the “do-nothings” in politics, she ran for the Illinois state senate. She finished last but vowed to learn from the mistakes of the campaign.

She devoted much of her remaining energy to an autobiography. “Our youth are entitled to the facts of race history which only the participants can give,” she wrote in the preface. She stopped writing mid-sentence in what would be the last chapter of her book. After a day of shopping, she complained of feeling ill. Two days later, she lapsed into a coma; she died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931.

Today, Wells is remembered as a social pioneer, a woman of many firsts—in journalism and civil rights. But she’s best known for her courageous and often lonely battle against the scourge of lynching. “She had a vision of how to execute that kind of struggle, not on moral grounds alone, but as a social justice issue,” says Without Sanctuary curator Joseph Jordan. “Her methodology would not only be used throughout the antilynching movement but also in the work of the NAACP and by the civil rights and human rights activists that followed.”

“The awful crimes that occurred in this country should not be forgotten,” says Tazewell Thompson. “They can still happen today, as the lynching in Jasper, Texas [of James Byrd in 1998], proves.” But thanks in part to Wells, the Byrd lynchers were not greeted by cheering crowds or aided by lawmen. They were prosecuted.

No letter pleased Ida B. Wells more than the one she received from a Mississippi sharecropper during her antilynching campaign. “The only thing to offer you in your great undertaking [is] prayer,” the man wrote. “The words ‘God bless her’ is written here on every acre of ground and on every doorstep and inside of every home.”

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