Wells was born during the height of the Civil War to slave parents on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Miss. After losing her parents and a sibling to the Yellow Fever epidemic, Wells was orphaned at 16 and left to care for her five brothers and sisters. With her father instilling the importance of education early on, Wells would become a teacher in the rural town to support her family. Wells blossomed during this time, and so did her responsibilities.
Moving to Memphis with her family, Wells attended Fisk University for a brief spell. Her move to Tennessee would be where she would find her life’s calling as a journalist. After purchasing a first-class ticket from Memphis to Nashville in 1884, Wells was forced from the train after refusing to give up her seat. Suing the train company, she would win a $500 settlement that was later overturned by the state’s Supreme Court.
Inspired by the breakdown of the case, Wells began to write about race and politics in the Deep South.
Using the moniker “Iola,” she would be published in several small Black news outlets and eventually came to be the owner of the “Memphis Free Speech and Headlight” paper. While Wells worked as a teacher in Memphis at a segregated public school, she became openly critical of the conditions of the “Blacks Only” facilities.
She was later fired from her job as a result of her criticism.
After a lynching in Memphis by a White mob, Wells would begin reporting on the racist practice. Traveling for months in the South, she would gather leads and information for her editorial pieces. Because of her writing, Whites were offended and destroyed her newspaper’s offices while she was away in New York. Remaining in the North, Wells would write several anti-lynching reports and became a known activist and commentator. Lecturing also became her passion and she used her platform to call for reforms in the lynching practice.
In her “Lynch Law in America” article, which was published in 1900, she wrote:
Not only are two hundred men and women put to death annually, on the average, in this country by mobs, but these lives are taken with the greatest publicity. In many instances the leading citizens aid and abet by their presence when they do not participate, and the leading journals inflame the public mind to the lynching point with scare-head articles and offers of rewards.
Whenever a burning is advertised to take place, the railroads run excursions, photographs are taken, and the same jubilee is indulged in that characterized the public hangings of one hundred years ago. There is, however, this difference: in those old days the multitude that stood by was permitted only to guy or jeer. The nineteenth century lynching mob cuts off ears, toes, and fingers, strips off flesh, and distributes portions of the body as souvenirs among the crowd.
If the leaders of the mob are so minded, coal-oil is poured over the body and the victim is then roasted to death. This has been done in Texarkana and Paris, Tex., in Bardswell, Ky., and in Newman, Ga. In Paris the officers of the law delivered the prisoner to the mob. The mayor gave the school children a holiday and the railroads ran excursion trains so that the people might see a human being burned to death.
In Texarkana, the year before, men and boys amused themselves by cutting off strips of flesh and thrusting knives into their helpless victim. At Newman, Ga., of the present year, the mob tried every conceivable torture to compel the victim to cry out and confess, before they set fire to the faggots that burned him. But their trouble was all in vain–he never uttered a cry, and they could not make him confess. . . .
Starting the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, she would later begin work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before later cutting her ties with the group. Wells cited that at the time, the NAACP lacked programs that called for action and clashed with her more activist stances. Continuing to work on behalf of women’s rights, she joined forces with the National Equal Rights League.
As her health began to fail, Wells still made an impact as a vocal champion of justice; however, kidney disease would overtake Wells and she passed away from the condition in Chicago at the age of 69.
Watch Wells-Barnett’s life here:
Wells left behind writings, speeches, and a record of protests that marks her as one of the early heroes of Black America. Her tireless work and desire to see that African-American men and women entered a level playing field with their White counterparts counts her as one of the most-revolutionary figures of our time.
Rest In Powerful Peace, Ida B. Wells!