Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Journalism as a weapon against racial bigotry
On may 4, 1884, more than 70 years before Rosa Parks fueled the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, 22-year-old Ida B. Wells spurned a segregated train car to sit in the ladies’ coach. After she was forcefully removed from the coach, she exited the train, hired an attorney and sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company on the grounds that blacks were relegated to the smoking car when the law called for separate and equal public accommodations. A court awarded her $500 in damages.
“Darky Damsel Gets Damages,” reported the Memphis Daily Appeal on December 25, 1884. While the state supreme court reversed the circuit court ruling in 1887, the experience helped launch the career of a fearless journalist who unflinchingly put her livelihood and life on the line to confront racial injustice. After writing about her legal battle in a religious newsweekly, Living Way, Wells would for another four decades use journalism as a weapon against the virulent racial bigotry sweeping the South.
In 1889 Wells’ Living Way columns under the pen name Iola were nationally circulated in black newspapers. That year she was invited to write for Free Speech and Headlight, which was co-owned by the pastor of Tennessee’s largest Baptist church. Wells insisted on coming on board at Free Speech and Headlight as an equal partner. She became editor and one-third owner of the paper while maintaining her job as a Memphis public school teacher. For two years, she operated on dual fronts without incident. But in 1891, she turned her critical pen toward inferior conditions in the city’s black public schools. The article cost her the coveted teaching job she had held for seven years.
She later wrote that she had tried to avoid losing her job by asking Rev. F. Nightingale, part owner and sales manager of the paper, to sign his name to the critical article. “I was still teaching and I wanted to hold my position,” Wells wrote in her autobiography. When he refused, it was published unsigned, leading many to rightly assume she had written it.
Of her dismissal, she wrote, “Of course I had rather feared that might be the result; but I had taken a chance in the interest of the children of our race and had lost out. The worst part of the experience was the lack of appreciation shown by the parents. They simply couldn’t understand why one would risk a good job, even for their children. ... But I thought it was right to strike a blow against a glaring evil and I did not regret it.”
The loss of her job allowed Wells to turn her full attention to journalism. She was already known in black circles throughout the country as “Princess of the Press” for her contributions to many of the nation’s leading black newspapers. The New York Age, the respected black weekly, regularly reprinted her Free Speech articles. Being an outspoken woman in a male-dominated profession only served to bolster her celebrity.
“She has become famous as one of the few women who handle a goose quill with diamond point as easily as any man in newspaper work,” wrote T. Thomas Fortune, the legendary editor of the New York Age. “If Iola were a man she would be a humming independent in politics. She has plenty of nerve and is as sharp as a steel trap.” Given the precarious status of blacks in the South during that era, when blacks were openly attacked by mobs, her outspokenness against the widespread disenfranchisement and persecution of blacks would have been noteworthy even for a man.
This was particularly so in 1892, when she began highlighting the widespread lynching of black men throughout the South, which had become a routine and publicly sanctioned form of justice. Her interest was piqued by the lynching of three prominent Memphis-area businessmen who managed a store in a heavily populated community. The men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Steward, had been charged, by a competing white grocery store owner, with conspiracy and indicted. The indictment triggered protests in Memphis’ black community, and after four days of unrest, Moss, McDowell and Steward were charged with inciting a riot and thrown in jail. They were then taken from the county jail, shot and hanged, with graphic details of their lynching recounted in the daily newspaper. It was reported that Moss had begged for his life and that McDowell, whose fingers were shot off, had tried to grab the gun. For Wells, the incident both underscored the complicity of whites—in the government and in the press—in mob violence against blacks and debunked the prevailing myth that black men were lynched for raping white women.
In her editorial in Free Speech, Wells expressed outrage that “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 implored blacks to “save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, … when accused by white persons.” She also urged blacks to continue a boycott of the streetcars in protest of the brutal murders.
She began to investigate the lynching of other black men accused of rape, including one reported in an Associated Press dispatch from Tunica County in Mississippi. “The big burly brute was lynched because he had raped the seven-year-old daughter of the sheriff,” said the report. Wells set out for Tunica County, where she learned that the sheriff’s daughter was a grown woman who had been found by her father in the black man’s cabin. In another case, the victim’s mother told her that her son had responded to the advances of the young mistress of the house and was lynched once their romance was discovered. Incidents such as these prompted her to write her now famous editorial published in Free Speech on May 21, 1892. In it, she questioned the purity of white women that was typically held up to justify the lynching of black men.
“Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women,” wrote Wells. “If Southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
The editorial sparked angry calls for revenge in the daily newspapers. “Patience under such circumstances is not a virtue,” said the editorial in The Evening Scimitar of Memphis, Tennessee, on May 25, 1892. “If the negroes themselves do not apply the remedy without delay it will be the duty of those whom he has attacked to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison Sts., brand him in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.” Given the male-dominated world of journalism at the time, the writer had little reason to suspect that the editorial had been written by a woman.
The same day, the city’s Daily Commercial also called for revenge. “The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern whites. But we have had enough of it. There are some things that the Southern white will not tolerate, and the obscene intimations of the foregoing have brought the writer to the outermost limit of public patience. We hope we have said enough.”
While Wells was en route to Philadelphia to attend the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s general conference, the office of Free Speech was destroyed and its business manager, J.L. Fleming, was run out of town. Wells learned of the mob attack while meeting in New Jersey with Fortune, who showed her an account of the incident in the New York Sun. The article said that a group of leading citizens, acting on the Commercial Appeal editorial, had destroyed the type and furnishings in the Free Speech office and left a note warning that anyone who tried to publish the paper would be killed.
“Although I had been warned repeatedly by my own people that something would happen if I did not cease harping on the lynching of three months before, I had expected the happening to come when I was at home,” Wells wrote in her autobiography. “I had bought a pistol the first thing after Tom Moss was lynched, because I expected some cowardly retaliation from the lynchers. I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
Urged by friends not to return to Memphis, Wells decided to stay in New York where she joined the staff of the New York Age. She was also given one-quarter interest in exchange for her Free Speech subscription list. “They had destroyed my paper, in which every dollar I had in the world was invested. They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth. I felt that I owed it to myself and my race to tell the whole truth,” she would say later.
At the Age, Wells continued her aggressive crusade against lynching. She published a pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases, which documented the epidemic throughout the South. It was the first time the atrocity against blacks had been thoroughly documented and the complicity of the white establishment highlighted. In many communities, white citizens would attend the public lynching of blacks—who were often set ablaze—for amusement. Such episodes were gleefully reported in the press. Wells was particularly horrified by a lynching in Paris, Texas, in February 1893 in which schoolchildren were given a holiday to see a murder suspect burned alive after being tortured for hours with red-hot irons.
“Brave woman! You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured,” wrote Frederick Douglass in a letter to Wells dated October 25, 1892, which she reprinted in her pamphlet on lynching, Southern Horrors. The documentation of lynching along with her national speaking tours in the United States drew international attention. She accepted an invitation to travel to England, Scotland and Wales in 1893 to publicize both the barbaric practice and the failure of prominent white Americans to condemn it. She riveted her European audiences with stories of American barbarity, and her speeches were widely reported on and editorialized. She was particularly critical of the American mainstream press, which was, at best, mute on the issue. “The pulpit and the press of our own country remains silent on these continued outrages and the voice of my race thus tortured and outraged is stifled or ignored wherever it is lifted in America in a demand for justice,” she wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Daily Post in Birmingham, England, on May 16, 1893.
Wells’ critique of the press earned her public enemies. The president of the Missouri Press Association, in a letter published in a local newspaper, denounced Wells and all black women who, he said, had “no sense of virtue and [were] altogether without character.”
While best known for her exposés on lynching, Wells wrote about a wide range of issues affecting African Americans. In 1893, in collaboration with Frederick Douglass, Ferdinand Barnett (whom she later married) and I. Garland Penn, they produced The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. The 81-page booklet condemned the exclusion of black Americans in the Chicago World’s Fair. In the preface she wrote:
The exhibit of the progress made by a race in 25 years of freedom as against 250 years of slavery would have been the greatest tribute to the greatness and progressiveness of American institutions which could have been shown to the world. The colored people of this great Republic number eight millions—more than one-tenth of the whole population of the United States. They were among the earliest settlers of the continent, landing at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 in a slave ship, before the Puritans, who landed at Plymouth in 1620. They have contributed a large share to American prosperity and civilization. The labor of one-half of this country has always been, and is still being done by them. ... The wealth created by their industry has afforded to the white people of this country the leisure essential to their great progress in education, art, science, industry and invention.
In 1894 she returned to England, where for six months she lectured while regularly writing articles published in the newspaper the Chicago Inter-Ocean. She returned to the United States in July 1894. The following year she settled in Chicago and published A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894. She wrote:
It becomes a painful duty of the Negro to reproduce a record which shows that a large portion of the American people avow anarchy, condone murder and defy the contempt of civilization. These pages are written in no spirit of vindictiveness, for all who give the subject [of lynching] consideration must concede that far too serious is the condition of that civilized government in which the spirit of unrestrained outlawry constantly increases in violence, and casts it blight over a continually growing area of territory. ... During the year 1894, there were 132 persons executed in the United States by due form of law, while in the same year, 197 persons were put to death by mobs who gave the victims no opportunity to make a lawful defense. No comment need be made upon a condition of public sentiment responsible for such alarming results.
The Red Record provided not only statistics, most gathered through mainstream press accounts, but also a detailed overview of the history of lynching since the Emancipation Proclamation.
Wells married Ferdinand L. Barnett in 1895. Barnett, a lawyer, founded The Conservator, the first black newspaper in Chicago. The couple had three children, but Wells continued her newspaper work and anti-lynching crusade. She would later write for the nation’s major black weeklies, most notably the Chicago Defender, for which she covered the race riots in Springfield, Illinois; Elaine, Arkansas; and East St. Louis, Illinois, the latter in which 150 blacks were killed in July of 1917. Her dispatches included interviews from scenes of violence, from the looted homes of blacks and from the municipal lodgings where blacks were driven by angry white mobs.
In the preface to her autobiography, Wells, who died in 1931 at the age of 68, maintained her fierce racial pride. She stressed the importance of blacks recording their own history, noting that the major accomplishments of blacks during Reconstruction—when blacks served in such high positions as lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator—were “buried in oblivion ... [O]nly the southern white man’s misrepresentations are in the public libraries and college textbooks of the land. The black men who made the history of that day were too modest to write of it, or did not realize the importance of the written word to their posterity.”
It is something that could never be said of Wells-Barnett, who seemed always to realize the power—and the danger—of the written word.
Pamela Newkirk is an assistant professor
of journalism at New York University
and author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists,
White Media (July 2000).