I originally chose to make Ida B.Wells my VIP for this week because of this statement:
“On May 4, 1884, 71 years before Rosa Parks inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott, civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat on a train, fueling her impassioned fight for equal rights.” That is quite the statement! I wonder if Rosa Parks received her inspiration from fellow African American Ida B. Wells! I became more and more impressed as I studied about Wells. She was quite the woman, no matter the color of her skin.
Wells was born into slavery on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. After being freed from slavery by the Civil War, Wells lost both of her parents and a sibling when she was 16 years old during an epidemic of yellow fever in 1878. With the help of her grandmother, she was able to find work as a teacher and keep all of her siblings with her. She moved to Memphis, Tennessee, with some of her siblings for a better paying job as a teacher, but she was soon the co-owner of a newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.
In the 1890s, Wells documented lynching in the United States. She showed that lynching was often used in the South as a way to control or punish black people who competed with whites, rather than being based on criminal acts by black people, as was usually claimed by whites. For her reporting, which was carried nationwide in black newspapers, her newspaper office was destroyed by a mob of white men, and subjected to threats she left Memphis for Chicago. In Chicago, she married and had a family but with the support of her husband still pursued her work writing, speaking and organizing for civil rights for the rest of her life. She was also active in women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement, establishing several notable women’s organizations. Wells was a skilled and persuasive rhetorician and traveled internationally on lecture tours.
Wells became a powerful woman as a “journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, Georgist, and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement.” In addition, she “was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. She arguably became the most famous black woman in America, during a life that was centered on combating prejudice and violence.”
With all of these accomplishments, I find it amazing that so little is known about Wells. One may well ask, why is so little known about her? Well to make a long story short, Wells was a conservative Republican, and her story does not fit the liberal story line.
Wells spent the last 30 years of her life working on urban reform in Chicago where she married and raised her family. She started an autobiography, Crusade for Justice in 1928, but she never finished it. She died at age 68 on March 25, 1931, in Chicago of kidney failure. She was buried in the Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago, which was later integrated by the city.