Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells

Crusade for Justice: 
The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells
Edited by Alfreda M. Duster
Published 1970
American biography

The more I read about Ida B. Wells, the more she impresses me.

Ida was born into slavery after the beginning of the Civil War, 1862. Following emancipation, she lived with her parents and seven younger siblings in a home built by her father, in Mississippi. Her parents placed high values in education, civic duty, and Christian principles.

Regretfully, in 1878, her parents and youngest brother died from yellow fever. Neighbors and friends offered to take some of the children to care for them, but Ida was determined to keep the family together. With the help of her father's savings and a teaching job, she was able to care for them. She was only sixteen.

In the early 1880s, while teaching in Memphis, Tennessee, her first fight for equality presented itself when she insisted on riding first class on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. To the cheers of other passengers, she was physically removed and thrown out of the car. She sued the railroad and lost her initial dispute in court; but later it was reversed and she was awarded damages. Unfortunately, the railroad appealed and judgment was reversed in the Tennessee Supreme Court. She wrote in her journal:
I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people generally. I have firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now, if it were possible, would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them. O God, is there no redress, no peace, no justice in this land for us? Thou hast always fought the battles of the weak and oppressed. Come to my aid at this moment and teach me what to do, for I am sorely, bitterly disappointed. 

Soon Wells began writing for a church paper, where she discovered her journalistic capabilities. And so did others. She was offered an editor's position for a small newspaper, to which she became part owner. After criticizing the Memphis school board for segregation, she was dismissed as a teacher. It was just as well because she was in the right place to bring light to what was becoming a disturbing darkness in the South: lynching.

In 1892, three black businessmen were lynched. She wrote a contemptuous commentary on those responsible for the lynching and the white community that encouraged and condoned these actions. Her own business was targeted and her life threatened. At the time she was out of town, but she vowed to keep speaking out and bringing light to the truth.

Ida was asked to travel abroad, which she did. She went to England to talk about lynching in America. She was inspired by how the English women formed civic groups to address political and social issues. When she returned to America, Wells urged her followers to do the same. The first black civic club was named the Women's Era Club.

Ida also focused on why blacks were not able to participate in Chicago's World's Fair. She produced a booklet called: The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition -- the Afro-American's Contribution to Columbian Literature. You should read her scathing preface in the book. It is too long to include, but you can read it HERE.

Wells returned to England in 1894, and an Anti-Lynching Committee was organized with citizens of Great Britain, who supported her work wholeheartedly. Upon returning to America, she continued lecturing throughout the North and organizing anti-lynching committees. She decided to settle down in Chicago where she continued writing, publishing A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, which was a history of lynching since the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a warning to the world over mob violence, which is exactly why lynching  culminated. Her hope was "to eradicate this form of barbarism."

In Chicago, she met and married a lawyer named Ferdinand Barnett. Together they had four children. This is where Ida really impressed me, even more than she had already. After her second child was born, she decided to take a break from her busy work to focus on the equally hard work of homemaker and mother. She believed in the essential presence of mothers in the home during their children's impressionable years. Here is what she had to say about that:
I had become a mother before I realized what a wonderful place in the scheme of things the Creator has given women. She it is upon whom rests the joint share of the work of creation, and I wonder if women who shirk their duties in that respect truly realize that they have not only deprived humanity of their contribution to perpetuity, but that they have robbed themselves of one of the most glorious advantages in the development of their own womanhood. I cannot begin to express how I reveled in having made this wonderful discovery for myself or how glad I was that I had not been swayed by advice given me on the night of my marriage which had for its object to teach me how to keep from having a baby. 
Ida and her children, Charles, Herman, Ida, Alfreda, 1909

By the way, on several occasions, Ida had to bring her children to work. She once had to hold her young baby while giving a speech, and she also travelled with her five-month old to meet President McKinley, in D.C.

In 1910, Ida established the Negro Fellowship League, with intent to aid uneducated blacks and teach them leadership. She sought financial support from upper class blacks, but found them indifferent or unwilling to venture into the lower class areas of the city to dedicate time to work with the less fortunate. Ida expected affluent individuals to be well mannered, of good morals, and good sense, not using their status to pay their way into upper society. She believed ministers should also be held to high standards and did not shy away from withdrawing support if she found they were living contrary to what they were teaching.

She worked hard to motivate men to register to vote. She organized the first suffrage club of black women. She was friends with Susan B. Anthony. She and her husband were also friends of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Discouragingly, she believed her work was in vain. She wrote her memoir to preserve black history, but felt like she accomplished nothing with her time or or effort trying to change her nation. But it is not true because she lead the way for others who came after her. She would be pleased if she saw the progress today, which to us seems commonplace because our generations do not know otherwise.

The only issue I think would be disappointing to Ida is that we have lost our values and standards as a nation. If Ida were alive today, it would devastate her to have to witness such accepted mob violence and immoral behavior; and I know she would shamelessly call [us] on it.

Ida B. Wells
Eternal Vigilance is the price of liberty. ~ Ida B. Wells 


  1. I saw the PBS documentary on the suffragist movement recently ("The Vote") & was sad to see that Ida B. Wells was pushed out by Alice Paul & others during the March on Washington -- due to the need for the Southern vote & the belief that if Wells marched prominently, it would displease the Southerners. The same thing happened to Frederick Douglass: he was a suffragist & was asked by Susan B. Anthony (if I recall) not to appear in Atlanta lest the Southerners be upset.

    I recently read Wells' much shorter work, Southern Horrors, & intend to read more. Thank you for taking the time to share your remarks here. x

  2. Yes, I read this about Ida, and I remember that issue came up with Douglass, too. I also read that Ida told them she was not only going to march, but she was going to march in the front. They wanted to stick her in the back. I believe she had that kind of character that would not compromise when she knew in her bones it was wrong. See, they did that same thing w/ the Southern vote when it came time to write the Constitution. They had to take into account the slavery issue and needed the Southern support to build the nation. It's a shame.

    I have Southern Horrors on my tbr.

    She's an AMAZING WOMAN. I just love her fire! She is a marvelous role model.