Ida B Wells : “They Made Me An Exile”
This is another name that we see a lot during Black History Month. But do we really know anything about her? I literally had no idea who the heck she was until about 3 years ago. I always used to confuse her with Mary McCleod Bethune. Not the same.
Which is one reason I need BHM. Yeah.
Ida B. Wells was a pioneer- as a woman, as an African American, as an African American woman.
Wells (later , Wells-Barnett, one of the first women to keep her maiden name in combination with her husband….She was also a mom to six!) was a very signifcant American figure in battle for social justice in the early 20th centurty. Here are the facts:
Wells was, amazingly, born a slave in Mississippi, in 1862. But the 1880s, she had graduated from college and was living in Tennessee. In 1884, she becamse a precursor to Rosa Parks when she refused to switch to a lesser car of seats on a train. She was thrown off the train (it was stopped at the time) when she put up a physical fight to stop from being sent to the “jim crow” car. She not only took the private railroad company to court (winning until she got to the state supreme court) but also wrote about the incident for local papers. Thus began a career of journalism and activism.
As her career went on , she served as partner and editor of the Free Speech & Headlight.’ One of her main topics of investigation became lynching in her home of Memphis, Tennessee. This included an enraged reaction to the lynching of several of her friends because they dared to be successful black business owners and were cutting in on the market of a local white store. They were attacked, fought back, shot a white guy– and got lynched.
Wells wrote in her paper that the black citizens should leave the town which refused to protect them. 6000 people moved. She faced serious consequences for this and her life was threatened. “They made me an exile for hinting at the truth,” she said. She was also endangered for implying many trumped up “rape” charges used as excuses for lynching were covering consensual affairs between black men and white women. This also sparked outrage and in 1892, her newspaper office was burned down. She moved to Chicago.
There she worked for suffrage, continued to write about and investigate Southern lynching, and eventually co-founded the NAACP. As time went on, her tireless advocacy was sometimes percieved as militant and radical – at the time.
This is just a nutshell of her life. (Review of a biography on Wells…)
I think the most impressive thing is that she took on something we don’t talk much about even to this day- the lyncying of black men (and sometimes women) by mobs of white people. This widespread phenomenon, in “mainstream” (or white) history is kind of a footnote. But being a black person in the 1890s through about the 1940s and knowing that for the smallest infraction, or just because someone had it in for you, you could be ripped out of your life and executed without judge or jury. That’s horrifiying, isn’t it?
[For a brief description of southern lynching of black people in the 1880s-1940s, check this. For the official website to the collection of lynching photos, “Without Sanctuary” , visit here. (warning- graphic…) For Billie Holiday singing the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, check here.]
AND for a woman to publically, loudly take it on – in the 19th century – in the midst of it? That takes amazing guts and courage. For a black woman to own part of a business and to be an editorial writer in a paper seems impressive enough in that time, but for her to use her position to deliver direct hits to people who might kill her for it?
It’s an amazing American story.