Ida B. Wells: The Foul-Mouthed “Princess of the Press” who spoke out against the South’s horrific lynchings

Something I’ve noticed reading story after story about women throughout history is that so many accounts base the women they feature off of the actions of another woman. For instance, I’ve read about nearly ten different women who have been likened to Rosa Parks for refusing to give up their seats.

I’m guilty of this too. Take my post on Viola Desmond, known by many as “Canada’s Rosa Parks” However, what I’ve noticed since is that, while Rosa Parks was a badass, she was a unique individual, as were the other women who have been compared to her and that their stories of courage and strength all lead very different places.

One “almost Rosa” story that stuck out to me was that of Ida B. Wells, whose seat incident happened 71 years before Rosa’s. However, not only have her actions become secondary to those that happened seven decades later, the NAACP which she helped to found barely acknowledged her impact, dooming her to a long life as a footnote in history books.

I would argue that had it not been for Ida B. Wells, few people would have been as fired up to form such an association in the first place.

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Ida was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862 to parents who had been slaves before the Civil War. Sadly, they both died in a Yellow Fever epidemic when Ida was 16. To protect her siblings from foster care, she found a job as a teacher and finished her own education by night. After she attended Rust College, she moved her family to Memphis to live with their aunt.

It was when Ida was 21 that the Rosa incident happened. She was riding a train on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad line and the conductor came up to her. He insisted she was in the wrong car and demanded she move to the smoking car which was already crammed full with other passengers. “As I was in the ladies’ car,” she wrote, “I proposed to stay.”

The conductor tried to pull her out of the chair himself, tearing her sleeve, but she wrapped her feet around the chair legs and bit his hand. It took a couple of baggage workers to help the conductor remove Ida from the seat and thrown her off the train, at which point the train’s passengers applauded. Ida sued the whole train company and won her case in the local courts. However, the company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee and so the ruling was reversed. 

Ida’s experience inspired her to write about all the injustices that African-Americans faced, primarily the horrific lynchings that plagued the South. Lynchings were often far worse than a mob hanging someone by a tree. I’ll try not to get too graphic but many involved shooting, cutting or burning people, mainly black men, into actual pieces. These pieces were then distributed to people who paid to watch the lynching as a souvenir.

The excuse for killing black men was that they had either raped or attempted to rape a white woman. Well, obviously we know this isn’t true and, actually many people back then knew it wasn’t true. As Ida herself said, “Nobody in this section of the country believes the threadbare old lie that Negro men rape white women.” Nobody cared enough, however, to speak out. So Ida decided to call some people out on their bull.

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The main lynching that caught her attention was that of Tommie Moss, Henry Stewart and Calvin McDowell. Tommie Moss was good friends with Ida and had named her the godmother of his first child. He and the other two men worked for a grocery store that some people felt was stealing business from another local white-owned store. The only way the feeble-minded owners of the store felt like they could handle the situation was to shoot fist-sized holes in the three men.

After hearing about this experience, Ida began to analyze reports of lynching cases from all over the south and investigate the given reasons behind each of them. These investigations became a work titled appropriately “Southern Horrors” which Ida published in 1892. In the introduction she wrote, “It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed. Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.”

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She joined the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper and continued to publish bold and thorough reports that questioned the stereotypical defense to lynchings, finding that in two-thirds of the killings, rape was never an allegation. In the majority of times that it was, Ida revealed a loving interracial relationship torn apart by racism.

She urged that there were three “salient facts” about lynching. The first was that racism was at the heart of the violence. The second was that criminality was the excuse to justify the lynchings but they were never the cause. The third was that “it is a national crime and requires a national remedy.” She wrote, “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.”

Her articles found a wide circulation and were often reprinted abroad and in over 200 weekly black newspapers around the country. She received high praise from many of the leading civil rights figures, such as Frederick Douglass, who told her, “There has been no word equal to it in convincing power. I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison.” Because of her well-crafted articles and her use of pioneering journalistic approaches still used today, she was deemed the “Princess of the Press.” I find this funny because apparently her choice of vocabulary was less than refined. 

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However, there were many in the country happier to call her a harlot for the bold and frank nature in which she spoke about interracial couples. While Ida was on a business trip, a group of men ransacked the Free Speech office and burned it to the ground. They told Ida that if she returned, they would be waiting to lynch her. She wasn’t frightened and so she planned on returning until she heard about a group of black men who were preparing to protect her. She didn’t want to put their lives in danger or escalate any aggression so she stayed put, settling in Chicago, and continued to report from there, virtually the only journalist looking in lynching for nearly 13 years.

She started to incorporate speaking tours and the establishment of many civil rights investigations into her day to day life, which allowed her message to spread farther and quicker. However, it also meant that other leaders and their words were beginning to grow more popular than her own, starting her on the path to obscurity.

She became a fierce advocate for women’s suffrage, was one of the two African-American women to sign the official need for the NAACP and was one of its founding members. However, because of her aggressive and “unladylike” language, many organization leaders tried to distant themselves from her.

Image Credit: Vox

Despite this, she still continued to push for change, organizing economic boycotts long before the practice became popular, attempting to persuade Britain to stop buying American cotton, working for several years a probation officer and running for Illinois State Legislature when no nominees spoke for the issues she believed in.

She also had a quite modern family dynamic. After she married lawyer and civil rights activist F. L. Barnett in 1895, she continued to work while Barnett took on the housework and the day-to-day chores of raising their four children. Sometimes Ida would take her children with her to see her speak, raising them to speak out against anything they didn’t think was right, carrying on her legacy after she died of kidney disease when she was 68. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia

To me, Ida is an amazing example of why we can’t just relegate lives like this to “another Rosa Parks story.” Yes, many women have stood up to white male supremacy throughout history and that is something to celebrate. However, Ida’s story is different than Viola’s and Viola’s is different from Rosa’s. What makes their stories unique is what they chose to do after, how they chose to inspire others, how they chose to use their own individual talents and passions to make a difference. In my book, anyone who is able to do that deserves their own story.

Image Credit: Big Red Hair
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