Ida B. Wells is most known for her crusade against the lynching of Black Americans that she launched in the 1890’s. This past Sunday marked the 155th anniversary of the late activist’s birth, and a look at her life shows that her fight against injustice started very early in her life.
Wells was born July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi as a slave. After emancipation, Wells’ father helped establish the future Rust College, a former school for newly freed slaves, in the town and also worked with the Freedmen’s Aid Society. After Yellow Fever swept through her community, killing her parents and a sibling, the 16-year-old Wells became the family’s main caretaker. She lied about her age to land a teaching job.
After moving to Memphis and attending Fisk University, Wells began her initial fight against injustice. In 1884, while aboard a train from Memphis to Nashville, Wells purchased a first-class ticket and was ordered from her seat. After being forcibly removed, she fought the matter in court and won a $500 settlement that was later overturned by the state Supreme Court. This lit a fire inside of Wells to begin writing about racism across the Jim Crow South under the pen name “Iola.”
Wells found her passion and her work was shared among the Black newspapers of the times. She was also teaching in a segregated Memphis school and spoke out against the poor conditions there. Wells was fired from the post in 1891 for being so outspoken.
After the lynching deaths of three Black men who owned a grocery store in Memphis, Wells began a nationwide push against lynching. Wells documented lynchings against Blacks and was a notable lecturer for the cause, becoming a figurehead for the movement. She married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a lawyer and widower with two kids in 1895.
The couple had four children together. Though her domestic responsibilities challenged her commitment, Barnett, who hyphenated her name before it was common to do so, remained committed to anti-lynching, women’s rights and the suffrage movement.
Wells-Barnett and her four children. (Public Domain)
Wells co-founded the National Association of Colored Women and worked tirelessly until she died to end to the racist practice of lynching.