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Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a trailblazing Black journalist, civil rights advocate, and suffragist. Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, Wells was raised in a loving home with seven siblings and her parents, who successfully made a living after slavery ended as a carpenter and famous cook. After tragedy struck and both of Wells’ parents died from yellow fever, Wells left college to work full time as a schoolteacher and assumed care of her five remaining siblings at the age of 16.
Alessandra Harris is the Co-Founder of Black Catholic Messenger.
Later, Wells moved to Memphis, Tennessee and began writing for Black newspapers and periodicals concerning issues of race and politics. She became the first Black woman to co-own a newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight, in a major city. However, a turning point occurred in 1892 when a close friend of hers and two other Black men, were lynched in Memphis.
At the time, lynching was believed to be a just response of white men getting retribution after Black men raped white women. However, Wells examined the reality of lynching and discovered it was a form of racial violence used against Black men for consensual relationships with white women, failure to pay debts, or if they challenged white economic dominance.
Wells also uncovered that Black women were targets of lynching as well. In several editorials, Wells forcefully spoke out against lynching and urged Black residents to leave Memphis. As a result of her activism, Wells’ newspaper office was burned and threats against her life led to her permanent exile from the state. However, her voice did have an effect, and close to twenty percent of the Black population of Memphis left the city, causing an economic impact on white business owners and residents.
Wells relocated to Chicago and continued writing for different newspapers as well as publishing anti-lynching pamphlets. She also toured the Northern states, the United Kingdom, and Scotland raising awareness about, and speaking against lynching. Wells was a tremendous organizer, a powerful speaker, and radically pro-Black. She married a prominent attorney and newspaper publisher, Ferdinand Barnett, and they had four children between 1896 and 1904.
Wells was one of the 60 founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1920, she opened the Negro Fellowship League Reading Room and Social Center on South State Street in Chicago. The Center helped Black people find jobs, provided reading and entertainment, and found shelter for people needing a place to sleep. When private funding ended, Wells used money from her employment as a probation officer to help keep the Center open until its closing in 1920.
Though Wells was associated with Frederick Douglas, WEB Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Madam CJ Walker, and Susan B Anthony, her name and story have largely been neglected in U.S. history. Similar to how Black Lives Matter has raised awareness about police brutality and racial violence since 2013, Wells spent her life raising awareness about the atrocity of lynching, and she was a pioneer in the civil rights and Black suffrage movements post Reconstruction. As a journalist, activist, wife, and mother, Wells defied the stereotypes of what it meant to be a woman.
Ida B. Wells has galvanized Black journalists and activists to this day. In 2016, Nikole Hannah-Jones co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a training and mentorship program for increasing the ranks of investigative reporters of color. Hannah-Jones has spoken about Wells’ impact on her own life as a journalist and Black woman. Hannah-Jones has been instrumental in educating the public about the work and legacy of Ida B. Wells and has continued Wells’ fight for justice with her journalism focusing on racial injustice and work on the New York Times 1619 Project.
The brainchild of Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project commemorated the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans that were brought to the United States. By emphasizing the role of African-Americans and the institution and economic impact of slavery, Hannah-Jones has brought to life the side of American history that, like Wells’ history, had been neglected. On the same day in 2020 that Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer for commentary on the 1619 Project, Ida B. Wells was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for ‘Outstanding and Courageous Reporting.’
The life of Ida B. Wells demonstrates the importance of speaking out against injustice. Regardless of race, gender, or educational background, all people are able to lift their voices and work for equality.
This content was originally published here.