BPW: The voice of working Women
Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida B. Wells (July 16, 1862 - March 25, 1931) was an American hero who devoted nearly 50 years of her life to fearlessly fighting for racial justice, civil rights, and women’s suffrage.
In 1884, while working as a teacher in the Shelby County school system in Memphis, Ida was forcibly removed from her seat in the “ladies car” for refusing to move to a segregated railcar. She sued the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railway, and wrote an article about what was done to her. This inspired her career as an uncompromising journalist and newspaper owner (the Memphis Free Speech), who courageously used her platform to expose racial injustice, challenge segregation, and launch what became a four-decade-long anti-lynching campaign, after three of her friends, enterprising grocery store owners, were brutally murdered by a white lynch-mob in 1892.
Using her pen and voice, Ida investigated other lynchings, wrote editorials indicting lynch law in the South and demanding justice, and travelled across the US and internationally to speak about the atrocities of lynching, the motives behind it, and the government's refusal to intervene to stop it.
In retaliation, Ida’s life was threatened and her newspaper office and printing press were destroyed while she was out of town. Unable to return to Memphis, Ida fought on, first in New York where she wrote for The New York Age, and then in Chicago, working on a pamphlet protesting the exclusion of African-Americans from the 1893 World’s Fair. There she settled and married Ferdinand L. Barnett (she kept her last name, which was unheard of at the time, hyphenating it to Wells-Barnett).
In 1896, Wells formed several civil rights organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women. In 1909, she became one of the founders of the NAACP, and in 1913, she established the Alpha Suffrage Club, which was the first black women’s suffrage club. In 1930, Ida ran for Illinois state senate. Wells died in Chicago in 1931 at the age of 69.
Ida B. Wells was posthumously named a 2020 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Special Citations and Awards “For her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”