Ida B. Wells-Barnett

  • educator
  • journalist
  • anti-lynching crusader
  • woman's suffragist
  • civil rights activist
  • one of the founders of the NAACP

She was born on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi before the close of the Civil War. She was orphaned in 1878 at age 16 when her parents died, victims of the yellow fever epidemic. She received her education and early training at Shaw University (now Rust College).  When Ida B. Wells left Holly Springs, she was armed with the values, dedication and drive that she received there. She lived in Memphis for about 10 years, then spent the last half of her life in Chicago, Illinois. For more than 40 years, Ida B. Wells was one of the most outspoken, articulate, fearless, and respected journalist and activist in the United States.  

Brief Biography


Ida B. Wells was born a slave on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi as the oldest of eight children.  Her father, James, was a carpenter and her mother, Elizabeth, was a famous cook. Once slavery ended, Ida attended Shaw University (now Rust College) along with her mother who attended school long enough to learn how to read the Bible. 

She was surrounded by political activists and grew up during Reconstruction with a sense of hope about the possibilities of former slaves within the American society. Both parents died, along with an infant brother, during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic when Ida was 16 years old. At that young age, she assumed the responsibility of rearing her five surviving younger brothers and sisters.

She soon became a teacher in a rural Mississippi school order to earn money for the family. After two years, she moved to Memphis for a higher paying teaching job.  Although she wrote for church newspapers about inequality in schools as well as many other areas of life, one day changed her life forever. She was accustomed to riding the train in whatever seat she chose. In 1884, the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwest Railroad forbade her from sitting in the ladies’ coach, even though she had a ticket. She was forcibly removed by three men because she refused to move to the colored car. She subsequently decided to sue the railroad and also wrote an article about the experience. The success of her article about the case as well as the uproar caused by her criticism of the school systems, influenced her career change from teacher to journalist.

As injustices against former slaves raged throughout the South and a reign of terror began, Wells' sense of indignation and quest for justice was fueled. Three of her male friends, who were upstanding, law-abiding, successful businessmen opened a grocery store (in direct competition with a white-owned store). They were lynched in 1892 on the pretext of a crime they did not commit.  Wells decided to use her pen to expose the motives behind the violence. Her major contention that lynchings were a systematic attempt to subordinate the black community was incendiary. She wrote about the situation with a clarity and forcefulness that riveted the attention of both blacks and whites. Lynching had become one of the main tactics in the strategy to terrorize blacks, and exposing its real purpose became the target of her crusade for justice. She also advocated for both an economic boycott and a mass migration of black people from Memphis to the Oklahoma territory. 

This so enraged her enemies that while she was traveling in the Northeast, they destroyed her printing press, and put a price on her head, threatening her life if she returned to the South. Despite the danger, she continued writing and speaking across the country and went to the United Kingdom to explain the brutality of lynching and the government's refusal to intervene to stop it. 

 Wells was invited by Frederick Douglass to come to Chicago in 1893 to work on the pamphlet that was distributed at the World’s Fair to explain the lack of African American representation. In 1894, she traveled throughout England speaking about the atrocities of lynching. In 1895 she settled in Chicago when she married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a widower and a fellow crusader who was a well-known attorney as well as the founder of The Conservator newspaper. In addition to raising Barnett's two children from his previous marriage, the couple had four children of their own in eight years. 

Even with this added responsibility, Wells continued in her relentless fight for social justice. She was involved with many clubs and organizations. In 1909, she was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also was very active in the women’s suffrage movement, starting the all-black Alpha Suffrage Club. She created one of the first kindergartens for black children. For ten years, from 1910 – 1920, she and her husband started and ran a rooming house and social center called the Negro Fellowship League. In her final year of life, Ida ran for Illinois state senate.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett and her husband Ferdinand L. Barnett lived at 3624 Grand Boulevard (now South King Drive) from 1919 – 1930. The house became a national landmark in 1974. Ida B. Wells-Barnett died on March 25, 1931 leaving a formidable legacy of undaunted courage and tenacity in the fight against racism and sexism in America. 

She and her husband are interred at Oak Wood Cemetery in Chicago. Ten years after her death, in 1941, the Ida B. Wells Homes were dedicated. In 2002, the last of that community came down. Now there is an effort to erect a monument to her on the land in Bronzeville where the homes once stood, in the community where she lived for over 35 years.



1862   Born July 16 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida B. Wells was the first of eight children born to James Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton. James Wells was the son of a slave woman and her master and became a skilled carpenter. Elizabeth Warrenton was born into slavery in Virginia, sold into Mississippi where she eventually met James Wells. The couple were "married" according to slave customs since marriage between slaves was not recognized in law and made their vows legal after Emancipation.  

1878 Ida's parents, James Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton Wells along with Ida's infant brother Stanley died in a yellow fever epidemic. Ida was left to raise the five surviving children (a brother fell ill and died several years earlier from spinal meningitis). She left Shaw University (now Rust College), passed the teacher's exam and began work at a school a few miles from Holly Springs. 


1879 An aunt invited Ida to move to Memphis, Tennessee where she might enjoy better opportunities. She left her two surviving brothers and a sister, Eugenia, who was paralyzed, in the care of relatives. Her other two sisters, Annie and Lily, accompany Ida to Memphis where she quickly found and accepted a teaching position in the Shelby County school system. Ida became part of the small but vital educated, middle class African-American community in Memphis.


1884 In May, while riding in a "ladies car" on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad, Wells was told by the conductor that she must leave and sit, instead, in a segregated car for blacks. She refused and was involved in a scuffle with the conductor. Wells was physically forced to leave the train. She hired a black lawyer, filed a lawsuit against the railroad, and was awarded $500. The decision was later overruled in 1887 by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wells entered into a career in journalism, writing articles that appeared in The Living Way, a weekly newspaper.  

1889 Wells became part owner of the black-run Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight and continues to write under the pen name Iola.  She shortened the name of the newspaper to the Memphis Free Speech


1892 On March 9th, three friends of Wells -- Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and William Stewart -- were lynched outside of Memphis. The three men owned and operated a store called the People's Grocery, a business that competed successfully with a white-owned store nearby. The rivalry between the two businesses escalated into violence between whites and blacks. Police charged Moss, McDowell, and Stewart with inciting a riot and arrested them. A mob then stole the men from the jail and murdered them on the outskirts of the city. In protest, Wells wrote a strongly-worded and uncompromising editorial in her newspaper, attacking the lynch mob for its barbarism and exposing the South's justification for lynching -- a mob reaction to the crime of rape- as a "thread-bare lie." Angered by the editorial, a violent mob attacked and destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Wells' life was threatened. She was warned never to return to Memphis. Wells began to investigate the lynching phenomenon from New York, where she wrote for the African-American newspaper, the New York Age. Her findings were compiled and published in the fall in a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors:  Lynch Law in all its Phases.  

1893 Protesting the racism that purposefully excluded African-Americans representation in the Chicago World's Fair, Wells published The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World's Colombian Exposition.  Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn and Wells' future husband, Ferdinand Barnett, contributed to the publication.  

1895 Wells wrote and published anti-lynching pamphlet, A Red Record. Married Ferdinand L. Barnett who was an attorney and newspaper owner.  He had two children from a previous marriage.  

1896 Participated in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women.


1900 Mob Rule In New Orleans was published. In it, Wells-Barnett told the story of Robert Charles, an African-American who challenged police harassment in New Orleans in May 1900


1909 Following a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, Wells-Barnett participated in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Suspicious of the largely white leadership, and skeptical that the organization could effectively address the most difficult racial problems, Wells-Barnett eventually leaves in protest.  

1910 In an effort to help black men moving into Chicago, Wells-Barnett and her husband founded the Negro Fellowship League. This organization provided shelter, employment, and other services for the urban migrants who came to the city in search of factory work.  

1913 Wells- Barnett turned her reformist energies towards winning the vote for all African-Americans; particularly women. She formed the first suffrage club for black women in the state of Illinois: the Alpha Suffrage Club. Participated in the  National American Women's Suffrage Association's (a white women's suffrage group) parade in Washington on March 3rd; a protest timed to coincide with the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as the nation's 28th President. Characteristically, Wells-Barnett refused to march at the back of the parade and demanded to walk alongside the white delegates from her state. "I shall not march at all," she declared, "unless I can march under the Illinois banner." Her protests failed to force a change. Along the parade route, Wells-Barnett stepped out of the crowd and into line with the main delegation, protected by sympathetic whites and still opposed by others. Her efforts mark the integration of the movement. She returned to Washington D.C. in 1918 to show her support for the Constitutional amendment that gave women the vote.  

1916 Wells-Barnett spoke before Marcus Garvey's organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), congratulating the nationalist leader for unifying African-Americans and instilling them with pride in their people.  

1918 Wells-Barnett was selected by the UNIA along with labor leader and fellow editor A. Philip Randolph to attend the Versailles Peace Conference in Paris: a meeting of world leaders at the end of World War I. The U.S. government denied the two permission to attend the conference, claiming that their association with groups like Garvey's made them dangerous radicals. Wells-Barnett spent the next decade challenging racism and addressing the great issues of her day.


1931 Wells died in Chicago on March 25.


1970 Her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, was published by her daughter, Alfreda Duster.  

1988  The Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation was started by five of her grandchildren.


1989 Documentary film, Ida B. Wells:  A Passion for Justice, directed by William Greaves, aired on PBS' The American Experience Series 

2008 Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee formed to create a monument in Chicago to honor her