Pioneering Mississippi-born journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett finally got her due earlier this year when she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Written by Robyn Jackson | Photographed by Joe Worthem
*A condensed version of this story appears in the print version of this magazine.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett is having a moment almost a century after her death. Earlier this year, the crusading journalist was recognized this year with a Special Citation and Award of at least $50,000 from the Pulitzer Prize Board in support of her mission, with recipients to be announced later, “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
The award focused renewed attention on the Holly Springs native, who used her talents as a writer and speaker to fight racism and sexism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Wells was ahead of her time. She risked her life to draw attention to injustice while juggling work and family duties. Historians consider Wells to be the most famous Black woman in the United States during her lifetime, according to the New York Times, but until recently, she has been overshadowed by other civil rights leaders and written out of suffrage history because of her race.
Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs on July 16, 1862, the first of eight children of James Madison Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton Wells. James’ mother, Peggy, was a slave who was impregnated by her white owner. When James was 18, his father took him to Holly Springs to become a carpenter’s apprentice, and he worked as a “hired out slave living in town.” Elizabeth was one of 10 children born on a plantation in Virginia, and she was sold away from her family. James and Elizabeth were enslaved by Spires Bolling, an architect and owner of the Bolling-Gatewood House in Holly Springs, which is now the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum.
“I was born in Holly Springs, and I had never heard of Ida B. Wells,” said the Rev. Leona Harris, executive director of the museum. She was attending college in Chicago when one of her professors, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, told her about Wells-Barnett and introduced her to Wells’ daughter, Alfreda Duster. Harris has spent decades creating the museum, with support from Wells’ descendants.
“This house we’re in now was built by Ida’s father as a slave,” Harris said. “Not only this house, but several of the other houses in Holly Springs were built by Jim Wells and the slaves.”
After the Civil War, Wells’ parents became active in Reconstruction Era politics.
“She said her parents demanded that they must go to school and get a good education,” Harris said.
At a young age, Wells enrolled in Shaw University, now Rust College in Holly Springs, but was expelled after getting into a dispute with the president. She was visiting her grandmother on her farm near Holly Springs in 1878 when she learned that a yellow fever epidemic in the city had killed her parents and youngest brother. Wells was determined to keep her family together, so at the age of 16, she dropped out of high school, lied about her age and took a job as a teacher at a Black elementary school. Her grandmother watched the children during the week while Wells was teaching.
“I came home every Friday afternoon, riding the six miles on the back of a big mule. I spent Saturday and Sunday washing and ironing and cooking for the children and went back to my country school on Sunday afternoon,” Wells wrote.
When her grandmother died of a stroke, Wells and her two youngest sisters moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she continued to work as a teacher. During summer vacation, she attended classes at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis.
In 1884, 80 years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Wells was thrown off a first-class car of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, despite having a ticket, and ordered to move to the smoking car. When Wells refused, the conductor and two other men dragged her off the train. She filed a lawsuit and won the case, with the circuit court granting her $500, but the ruling was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1887. Wells was also ordered to pay court costs.
“I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from the suit for my people,” Wells said. “O God, is there no … justice in this land for us?”
While teaching, Wells began writing for Black-owned publications, including the Evening Star in Washington, D.C. Under the pen name “Iola,” she wrote articles critical of Jim Crow laws. In 1889, she became co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper. She was dismissed from her teaching post in 1891 by the Memphis Board of Education because of her articles criticizing conditions in Black schools in the region.
The lynching of a friend turned her attention to white mob violence. Thomas Moss was the owner of the People’s Grocery in South Memphis, and when a fight broke out between two boys who were playing marbles in front of the store, the father of the white boy attacked the Black boy. Two of the store’s employees, William Stewart and Calvin McDowell, rushed out to defend the child, and residents of the neighborhood gathered, forming what was described as “a racially charged mob.” The next day, the owner of a white grocery store across the street showed up at the People’s Grocery with a Shelby County deputy. A confrontation ensued and a shot was fired. The next day, March 5, 1892, six men went to the People’s Grocery, where they were met by a barrage of bullets. Two men were wounded. Moss, McDowell and Stewart were arrested. Around 2:30 a.m. March 9, 75 men wearing black masks took Moss, McDowell and Stewart from the Shelby County Jail to a rail yard and shot them to death.
Armed with a pistol and traveling around the South alone, Wells investigated approximately 700 lynchings, questioning the stereotype that the victims were Black men who had raped white women. She found that in two-thirds of these cases, rape was never an accusation, and many of the interracial relationships had been consensual.
Wells concluded that the real motive was Black economic competition, which threatened the power of whites. She published a pamphlet, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases,” and her investigative reporting was published in Black-owned newspapers around the United States. Her expose so enraged local racists that they burned her press and threatened her life. Wells had been out of town when her business was ransacked, but she never returned to Memphis.
“It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed … Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so,” Wells said in 1892.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative’s 2015 report, “Lynching in America,” some 4,075 African Americans were lynched in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950.
A persuasive speaker, Wells traveled to Great Britain in 1893 and 1894, where she found sympathetic audiences. The editor of the Daily Inter-Ocean, a Republican newspaper in Chicago, asked her to write about her trip, so she became the first African American woman to be a paid correspondent for a white mainstream newspaper.
Wells joined other Black leaders in 1893 in calling for the boycott of the World’s Columbian Exposition, accusing the expo’s committee of excluding Blacks and portraying them negatively. It was while working on a pamphlet that she met attorney and activist Ferdinand Barnett, a widower with two sons, whom she married in 1895. He had founded the Chicago Conservator, the city’s first Black newspaper, in 1878, and Wells began writing for the paper in 1893, later acquiring a partial ownership. After their marriage, she became editor. They had four children together.
Wells-Barnett also took on the women’s suffrage movement, confronting white leaders who ignored the issue of lynching. She was often ridiculed and ostracized by suffrage organizations in the U.S., but remained active in the women’s right movement, co-founding the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Although she was praised by Frederick Douglass, others in the civil rights movement thought she was too radical. In her autobiography, “Crusade for Justice,” Wells wrote that W.E.B. Du Bois deliberately excluded her from the list of founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Many of the attacks were ugly. The New York Times called her “a slanderous and nasty-minded Mulattress,” and the Memphis Daily Commercial called her “a black scoundrel.”
In her later years, Wells-Barnett focused on urban and prison reform in Chicago, and in 1930, ran for the Illinois Legislature, one of the first Black women to run for public office, but by the time she died on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68, she had been all but forgotten.
Now, almost 90 years later, her legacy lives on. In 1990, she was honored with a stamp from the U.S. Postal Service, and the Holly Springs post office was named for her. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and her Chicago home is a designated landmark. The University of Memphis has hosted a conference in her honor each year since 2007. She was the subject of a Google Doodle on her birthday in 2015. In 2016, the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting was begun in Memphis. In June 2020, following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, protesters occupying the area outside the Tennessee State Capitol dubbed it the Ida B. Wells Plaza.
On July 13, 2019, a marker in her honor was dedicated in Holly Springs’ Courthouse Square, and on Nov. 7, 2019, a Mississippi Writers Trail marker was installed on the Rust College campus.
Harris says it’s time Wells-Barnett’s contributions to civil rights, women’s rights and journalism be acknowledged. “There’s a lot of work that’s been done to bring Ida’s life back to this community,” Harris said. “If you really want to learn about Ida B. Wells and her life and legacy, come to Holly Springs and see where she was born, and read her autobiography, ‘Crusade for Justice.’”
If You Go
The Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum is located at 220 N. Randolph St., Holly Springs. Due to COVID-19, it is currently open by appointment only. Call 662-252-3232 or visit idabwellsmuseum.org for more information.