It is not possible within the confines of a blog post to list all the accomplishments of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Her career was the embodiment of the term intersectionality – decades before the term was coined. She had her hands in women’s suffrage, prison reform, desegregation efforts, fighting corruption in local politics, education reform, breaking down barriers for black women in journalism, and most famously, her crusade against lynching.
Ida should be widely known and celebrated, and she should be everyone’s first thought when they hear the term Bad Ass. She was a petite lady, about five feet tall, who dressed elegantly and conveyed an impeccable air of ‘do not fuck with me.’ Ida received death threats over her anti-lynching work and, rather than giving up the work as her enemies hoped, she began carrying a pistol. Writing about this decision in her autobiography, Ida started that she “felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a bit.”
The fearless Miss Wells first came to prominence in her attempts to desegregate the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway line in 1883. Initially her suit succeeded and she was awarded $500 in damages, but on appeal her suit was thrown out by a post-Reconstruction court stacked with former Confederates.
Ida attracted national attention in the wake of the brutal lynching of her friend, Thomas Moss, and his associates Calvin McDowell and Henry Steward. Ida was co-owner of a newspaper based out of Memphis at the time, and she began writing first on the lynching of her friend, and then investigating the subject more generally. She challenged the widely accepted view that lynching was a regrettable but necessary form of social control, that white southerners needed to lynch black men to deter them from giving into their supposed animalistic urge to rape white women. Ida believed that the majority of lynchings were prompted by racial hatred and a desire to keep black people from succeeding economically and politically. When she expressed this view in an editorial she unintentionally set off a shit storm. Determined to prove how wrong she was in her assessment of the motives of lynchings, a mob of white men sacked the office of her newspaper, destroyed her press, ran her partner out of town, and stationed themselves at the train station to lynch her if she ever returned (luckily, she was in Philadelphia for a journalism conference when her editorial ran).
This attempt to silence Ida, while proving her completely correct in her assertions that mobs of white people were committing terrible acts of violence against black people to uphold a social order of white superiority and black inferiority, backfired spectacularly. Ida was not the type to give in to intimidation. Once she was uprooted from her home in Memphis she set out on a new phase of her career: publicly shaming the south by exposing the horrors of lynching. Like the abolitionists before her, she went on speaking tours in England where she detailed her findings on lynching and racial inequality in the United States. She also co-authored a pamphlet exposing racial inequality and anti-black violence that was distributed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
The NAACP has been quite happy to claim her as a founding member in recent years while celebrating her anti-lynching work, but back in the day they actually found her to be outspoken, tactless, and too radical leaning to work peacefully with white activists. She was quietly edged out of the organization after attending only a couple of meetings.
Where Ida Wells-Barnett is known and discussed, the focus is usually on her anti-lynching work and her contributions to women’s suffrage. As such, I’ve decided to close out with my favorite anecdote from her lesser known Settlement House work. While operating the Negro Fellowship League in Chicago, an organization that aided recent migrants to the city, Ida learned of the unfortunate situation of a young woman named Annabel Jones. Jones had been enslaved by a white family, despite the fact that this was in the twentieth century and well after the legal end of slavery in the United States. Jones had been working for the family without wages for about thirteen years and had been cut off from most communication with the outside world, when a black handymen who did work for the family discovered her and told her about the NFL. Jones managed to escape the house and get to the NFL headquarters where she told her story to Ida. Ida boldly escorted Jones back to the house, confronted the family, and managed to secure two years of back wages for Annabel to begin her new life.
I fell in love with Ida Wells-Barnett about a year after I graduated college with a degree in public history, having focused my studies on African American social history. I didn’t learn about her in school; I learned about her while I was reading up on post-Reconstruction black activists for fun, and though I’m glad I bumped into her I do think that’s a pretty big problem. Despite the fact that she was widely known in her day, Ida’s reputation and influence actually began diminishing in her lifetime. This was not a coincidence. Ida had a tendency to call out her friends as well as her enemies. She strove constantly to improve the world around her and was unwilling to compromise her ideals. Fellow activists characterized her as difficult and prickly. Her assertiveness was particularly unwelcome in a woman working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If Ida Wells-Barnett had been a man, perhaps her legacy would be more widely known and celebrated today.
Written by Sylvan Valentine (he/him and they/them) from Salem, MA. They work with the non-profit Transcendence, which you can follow on Facebook and Instagram!
This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.
To Learn More About the Incredible Bad Ass Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Check Out the Following:
- Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings
- Southern Horrors by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
- A Red Record by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
- Mob Rule in New Orleans by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
- Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells by Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Alfreda M. Duster
- Ida B. Wells-Barnett episode of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast by Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey https://www.missedinhistory.com/search.php?terms=ida+b.+wells-barnett