5 Things You Should Know About Pioneering Journalist And NAACP Co-Founder Ida B. Wells
The contributions of the investigative journalist against lynching and for Black and women's rights were long forgotten, but her legacy has been rediscovered.
March 25, 2021 at 11:30 pm
Thursday marks the 90th anniversary of the death of pioneering journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, one of the most famous and influential Black leaders of the late 19th and early 20th century. During her long career, Wells was instrumental in the fight against lynching, co-founded the NAACP and played an important role in the women’s suffrage movement. Though many of her contributions were washed out of history, her legacy has been revived and acknowledgment of her contributions continues to grow.
Here are five things to know about the legendary journalist.
1. Her early life was marked by both activism and tragedy
Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, her father, James became a trustee at Shaw University, the HBCU that is now known as Rust College, and an advocate for Black education. After her parents and youngest brother died of yellow fever when she was a teenager, Wells took guardianship of her younger siblings while working as a teacher. She enrolled at Shaw but was kicked out after a dispute with the school’s president.
In 1883, a young Wells was forcibly removed from a segregated Tennessee train for refusing to move to a different car. She successfully sued the railroad company the following year, but her verdict was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1885.
2. She was the leading voice against lynching in America
Driven by the horrors of lynching – including the 1892 killing of her good friend Thomas Moss, a Black grocery store owner who was shot to death alongside his business partners – Wells used her skills as an investigative reporter to conduct a long anti-lynching campaign. She regularly documented the circumstances surrounding these extrajudicial murders, highlighting the brutality of the practice and dispelling the lies that were often used to justify the killings of mostly Black men by racist mobs.
Wells became a reporter and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech, using the newspaper to fight against the stereotypes of Black men as sexual predators against white women, a story used to justify mob violence against Black men. The paper was destroyed in 1892 by an angry white mob and Wells was driven out of town. She went on to publish the anti-lynching pamphlet “Southern Horror: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” and the investigative book A Red Record.
Her published research included many pages of extensive data and statistics to back up her claims concerning lynching. In a letter to Wells about her work, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, "You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge. You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves.”
3. She was a prolific organizer
Wells was a co-founder of the NAACP in 1909, but her role in the organization has often been left out of the group’s history. She left the group in 1912 over her skepticism of the priorities of the group’s white and elite Black leadership, particularly concerning the organization’s lackluster anti-lynching activism. The NAACP was neither the first nor the last organization that Wells helped create in her long career. During her travels in the United Kingdom in 1893, Wells helped to establish a British civil and human rights organization, the Society for the Furtherance of the Brotherhood of Man. During a second visit to the U.K. the following year, she helped found the English Anti-Lynching Committee in London. The organization later threatened a boycott against American goods in response to the United States’ lynching problem.
Wells was also a strong proponent for women’s rights and founded or co-founded a number of organizations, including the Negro Fellowship League, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago to advocate for the right of women to vote. As president of the latter organization, Wells refused to march at the back of the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. She instead took her place at the front of the march alongside white activists.
4. She was one of the most well-connected Black women in America
Wells was one of Black America’s most important leaders in her own right and had relationships with others as well. She counted Douglass as a close friend and mentor, and Douglass in turn often lauded and promoted her work. Concerning their respective writings against lynching, Douglass said, “my word is feeble in comparison” to Wells’ writings. Wells was also active in politics, helping Oscar Stanton De Priest be elected as Chicago’s first black alderman. De Priest would later go on to be the first Black man to serve in Congress in the 20th century.
Wells' connections were not always friendly. For instance, Wells was a co-founder of the NAACP alongside Black leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois – whom she mentored and with whom she shared criticisms of the conservative policies of Booker T. Washington. But after her name did not initially appear among the list of NAACP founders, Wells recounted that it was Du Bois who had her name removed from the list. She thought it due perhaps to Du Bois’ personal ambivalence toward her, whom he deemed too radical, or because of his limited experience with and acknowledgment of Black women in leadership roles.
5. Her legacy remains strong today
In recent decades, Wells has been recognized with various honors, including scholarships, awards and postage stamps bearing her name or likeness. The New York Times recently published an obituary of Wells along with other women who were “overlooked” by the paper during its long history. While her death in 1931 was indeed overlooked by the paper, her life was not. The Times once referred to Wells as “a slanderous and nasty-nasty-minded Mulatress" for her anti-lynching journalism.
Ironically or perhaps appropriately, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, the founder of "The 1619 Project," draws inspiration from Wells’ legacy, calling Wells her "spiritual godmother." On the same day that Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her lead essay in "The 1619 Project," Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer for Outstanding and Courageous Reporting. Hannah-Jones has honored Wells’ legacy in several ways, including co-founding the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting in 2016. Additionally, Hannah-Jones adopted the screen name “Ida Bae Wells” for her active Twitter account.
The honors posthumously bestowed upon Wells and the modern journalists and activists such as Hannah-Jones who remain inspired by her ensure that the legacy of Ida B. Wells will remain strong for years to come.