The internet is a magical place full of thrilling stories about numerous badass womxn in history. I got lost in its enticing web a few days ago (when I was supposed to be doing adulty things like paying my rent) and stumbled upon a truly inspiring echelon of fem-tastic baddassery : The invincible force that was Ida B. Wells.
Feminist, Investigative Journalist, Civil Rights Activist, Teacher, Sociologist, leader of anti-lynching campaigns and Genuine Angel extraordinaire.
Born in Holly Springs Missisippi in 1862 – only months before Lincoln announced the abolishment of slavery – Ida was born to James and Lizzie Wells. They had both been enslaved by a local architect named Spires Bolling and lived on his property with their seven children. Once slavery was abolished, Ida’s father became increasingly interested in politics and was a vocal advocate for the advancement of black political candidates. Ida was close to her father, but due to her “rebellious” streak (Ahem…. Fearless and freaking awesome) clashed with him when she was expelled from college due to a confrontation with a professor. It was around this time, at the age of 16, that she went to visit her grandmother in the Mississippi Valley.
Upon returning from her visit, she was met with the tragic news that a yellow fever epidemic had killed both her parents and her youngest brother. After their funerals, relatives agreed that the five remaining children should be separated and sent to live in various foster homes, however Ida did not want her family to be broken apart and opted to get a job as a primary school teacher so that she could support her younger siblings. With the help of her grandmother, Peggy Wells, who cared for her siblings during the week, this was made possible.
Ida taught at a black elementary school and deeply resented the segregated schooling system and the fact that white teachers would be paid 80 dollars a week, whilst black teachers were only paid 30 dollars. Wells was outraged by this blatant discrimination, but a turning point occurred when she purchased a first class train ticket to Nashville and was ordered by rail staff to move to the African American coach. She refused (71 years before the notorious Rosa Parks) and was removed with force. She bit a man’s hand in protest against this violence whilst being removed and proceeded to sue the railroad. She won $500 but despite her efforts to take the case to the supreme court, it was not taken further. This moment however was a turning point in her journalistic career and ignited her activism.
Wells began to write about these injustices under the name ‘Iola’ in various free speech publications, but was eventually fired from her position as a teacher because of her vocal critique of racism and inequality. She was sometimes dubbed as ‘Iola, Princess of the Press’.
Her bravery is encapsulated in many stories. One such story is this ;
“In 1892, three African-American men—Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart—set up a grocery store in Memphis. Their new business drew customers away from a white-owned store in the neighbourhood, and the white store owner and his supporters clashed with the three men on a few occasions. One night, Moss and the others guarded their store against attack and ended up shooting several of the white vandals. They were arrested and brought to jail, but they didn’t have a chance to defend themselves against the charges—a lynch mob took them from their cells and murdered them.
These brutal killings incensed Wells, leading to her write articles decrying the lynching of her friend and the wrongful deaths of other African Americans. Putting her own life at risk, she spent two months travelling in the South, gathering information on other lynching incidents. One editorial seemed to push some of the city’s whites over the edge. A mob stormed the office of her newspaper, destroying all of her equipment. Fortunately, Wells had been travelling to New York City at the time. She was warned that she would be killed if she ever returned to Memphis.”
[Quote Source: http://www.biography.com/people/ida-b-wells-9527635]
After the lynching of her friends, Wells encouraged African Americans to leave Memphis. Over 6000 left, whilst others continued to protest against ensuing violence and injustice. Having experienced violent threats, Wells bought a pistol, writing;
“They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth.”
Despite threats of violence, Wells continued to search for the truth and her research was published in an African American newspaper, named the ‘New York Age’ owned by a former slave named Thomas Fortune. Ida also travelled abroad and spoke about the horrors of lynching. She eventually published her findings in Southern Horrors (1892), where she argued that many white southerners had “cried rape” as a means to disguise the true reason for lynching black men and where she explored the socio-economic progress of African Americas. She then published a pamphlet entitled ‘A Red Record’ (1895), which documented the extremely high rates of lynching post emancipation.
Ida took her anti-lynching activism to the White House when she lead a protest in Washington. In her later life she formed various organisations including ‘The National Association for Coloured Women’ and she continued to protest and dedicate her life towards fighting against discriminatory legislation and inequality in terms of hiring practices and pay.
Ida B. Wells is a hero. Often entering social spaces and roles that were reserved for men (breadwinner and head of her family, fierce activist, vocal journalist fearlessly criticising the state). When she got married, she also refused to give up her name. She was revolutionary for her time, and even now, given the horrifying police brutality against black bodies, serves as a beacon of immense inspiration.
Ida B. Wells never let injustice slide. Her life was dedicated to searching for truth and illuminating the horrors of the time so that the lives of African Americans would be regarded as important and treated with dignity and respect. She was the first black woman to be an editor of a newspaper and her life-long campaign against the horrors of lynching and her fearless bravery, despite pervasive threats against her life, makes her a fem-tastical force who should always be remembered.
She died at the age of 68, due to kidney failure but her legacy lives on. In 2002 she was named in a list of ‘100 Greatest African Americans’, in 1990 a stamp was issued by the American Postal service in her honour and she holds an important place within Black Feminist Thought.
We can all learn a lot from Ida B. Wells, most importantly to remain vocal in the face of injustice, to demand accountability and to never give up fighting the good fight for freedom and equality, no matter how many stumbling blocks might be in our way. Perhaps now more than ever it is time to all channel our inner Ida.
As she once said;