Ida B. Wells-Barnett
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.
Select Articles About Ida B. Wells
March 8, 2018, The New York Times belated obituary
March 16, 2018 The New York Times podcast
"Remembering Ida B. Wells's Legacy" by Michelle Duster Teen Vogue
"Ida B. Wells: The "Drive" in Her Name a Long Wait for a Distinguished Lady"
"Ida B. Wells and the Birmingham Connection"
Film Excerpt from documentary film being created titled
Light of Truth: The Making of the Ida B. Wells Monument
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For interviews of descendants click here
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery 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 the formerly enslaved spread 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 White people. Lynching had become one of the main tactics in the strategy to terrorize Black people, 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.
Wells was invited to Chicago by Frederick Douglass 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. Barnett had 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, including the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. She also was very active in the women’s suffrage movement, starting the all-black Alpha Suffrage Club in 1913. She created one of the first kindergartens for Black children in Chicago. 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 and a Chicago landmark in 1995. 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 community started to come down to make way for mixed-income housing. In 2008 a committee was formed to create an honor to Ida in the Bronzeville community where she lived for over 35 years. A monument will be installed in 2021 on a plaza area at 37th & Langley, which is in the center of where the Ida B. Wells Homes were located.
In 2018 she received a posthumous honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Rust College and the major street of Congress Parkway in downtown Chicago was renamed to Ida B. Wells Drive. A half block from her home, on the corner of 37th & King Drive, an honorary street name Ida B. Wells Way and an historical marker was dedicated in 2019. She was awarded a posthumous 2020 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.
Her legacy continues to inspire in the form of scholarships, awards, buildings, streets names, historical markers, books, movies and more.
by Michelle Duster
1862 Born enslaved July 16 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida B. Wells was the first of eight children born to James Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton.
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 her five surviving siblings.
1880 Ida and two of her sisters moved to Memphis to live with an aunt.
1884 In May, she was removed from the "ladies car" of the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad, when she refused to go to the colored car. She sued and won, only to have the decision reversed a couple of years later.
1889 Wells became editor and part-owner of the Memphis Free Speech
1892 On March 9th, three friends of Wells -- Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and William Stewart -- were lynched outside of Memphis. Wrote about the realities of lynching which led to her life being threatened and her exile from the South. Moved to New York City and worked with T. Thomas Fortune and his New York Age. Published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases.
1893 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 L. 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. (Had four children between 1896 and 1904)
1896 Gave birth to her son Charles. Participated in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women.
1897 Gave birth to her son Herman
1899 Published Lynch Law in Georgia pamphlet
1900 Published Mob Rule In New Orleans pamphlet
1901 Gave birth to her daugher Ida, Jr.
1904 Gave birth to her daugher Alfreda
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).
1910 Founded the Negro Fellowship League which provided shelter, employment, and other services for the urban migrants who came to the city in search of factory work.
1913 Founded the Alpha Suffrage Club - the first suffrage club for Black women in the state of Illinois. Participated in the suffrage parade in Washington, DC
1917 Published the East St. Louis Massacre pamphlet
1918 Wells-Barnett was selected by the UNIA 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 her a passport.
1920 Published The Arkansas Race Riot pamphlet
1930 Wells ran for state senate
1931 Wells died in Chicago on March 25.
1941 - Ida B. Wells Homes opened in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood
1970 Her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, edited by her daughter, Alfreda M. Duster, was published
1974 Ida B. Wells-Barnett's house at 3624 S. King Drive gained National Landmark status
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
1995 - Ida B. Wells-Barnett's house designated a Chicago Landmark
1996 The Ida B. Wells Family Art Gallery was established in Holly Springs, MS . The name was changed to the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in 2002.
2002 Ida B. Wells Homes started to be torn down
2008 Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee formed to create a monument in Chicago to honor her
2018 Major downtown Chicago street Congress Parkway renamed to Ida B. Wells Drive on July 25
February 11 - Ida B. Wells Drive street sign unveiling ceremony
July 13 - Unveiling of historical marker in town square of Holly Springs, Mississippi
July 16 - Shelby County, Tennessee declared Ida B. Wells's July 16th birthday as Ida B. Wells Day
July 20 - Unveiling of historical marker and honorary Ida B. Wells Way at 37th and King Drive in Chicago
July 27 - 4th Annual IdaTrek in Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago
August - Inducted into Mississippi Writers Trail
May 4 - awarded posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Citation
May 13 - 2nd edition of Crusade for Justice published
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