Home > Uncategorized > Ida B. Wells, Unknown Heroine – 2/18/2018 And published in the Concord Monitor on 2/25/2018

Ida B. Wells, Unknown Heroine – 2/18/2018 And published in the Concord Monitor on 2/25/2018

February is Black History Month. While it is important to acknowledge Black history, I am struck by how little of that history is integrated into America’s mainstream narratives. There is awareness of historical moments like the Civil Rights Movement and icons like Martin Luther King Jr. but so much history is buried.

Such is the case with Ida B. Wells, a true heroine, who has received insufficient attention as a historical figure. In a very dark time, at the risk of her life, she challenged the nation on a critical and ignored moral issue. She must be considered one of the most courageous leaders in American history and yet, few of us know who she is or what she did.

Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862. She lost both her parents at age 16 when they died in a yellow fever epidemic. As an orphan, she became the primary caretaker for six brothers and sisters.

While caring for her siblings, Wells was still able to complete her studies and earn a college degree. Wells’ biographer, Paula Giddings, says that Wells gravitated to creative expression as a way to cope with the loss of her parents.

Wells moved to Memphis Tennessee in the 1880’s and she became a school teacher. She loved literature and she participated in the Memphis Lyceum,  a forum for readings, debates, music and poetry.

The Lyceum was a place where Wells had an opportunity to develop her creative sensibilities, read and write her own work, and perform. She became known for her oratorical skills.

Wells’ first act of protest on behalf of black Southerners came in 1884. Like an early day Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat on the train from Memphis to Woodstock, where she taught school. Wells had purchased a first-class ticket. She refused to leave her seat when a conductor told her she had to move to the train’s smoking car.

It took the conductor and two passengers to physically extricate her from her first class seat. She did not go willingly. She bit the hand of the conductor who strong-armed her.

Wells retained a lawyer and she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. The trial court ruled in her favor, awarding her $500 in damages. The railroad company appealed and the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the judge and the court ordered Wells to pay court fees.

The Tennessee Supreme Court of that era was filled with Confederate veterans who continued to maintain a segregationist outlook.

Just to give a flavor of the times, in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights laws that prohibited discrimination in public accommodations were unconstitutional. The highest court in the land disgracefully served up racism and support for Jim Crow laws.

Wells was the first African American to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a state court.

This experience kicked off Wells’s career as a journalist. She started writing editorials in black newspapers that challenged Jim Crow laws across the South. In addition to continuing her teaching duties, she became editor and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a black-owned paper. She wrote:

“It was through journalism that I found the real me.”

For African Americans of that period, lynching had become a central issue because lynchings were happening with increasing frequency. In 1892, the issue became personal for Wells. Three friends, who owned a popular store, the People’s Grocery, in Memphis were arrested and jailed after a scuffle with a group of white men.

A white mob broke into the jail, removed Wells’s three friends, and proceeded to lynch them in a nearby field.

The lynchings incensed Wells and she decided to conduct her own investigation of lynching. Initially, in 1892, she wrote a pamphlet entitled “Southern Horrors”. She challenged the mythology that black men were being murdered for raping white women. She showed that in the 728 lynchings which had happened over the preceding decade, only a fourth of the lynching victims were even accused of rape, let alone found guilty of it.

Wells argued that many lynching victims had either successfully competed against whites in business or they were outspoken and had somehow challenged white authority. She revealed that many lynching victims were black women and girls.

Wells’ writing did not make her popular in Memphis. In editorials, she urged the black community to leave Memphis since “it will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons”. Over 6000 black people fled Memphis in the next three months.

Wells received death threats and there was a price on her head. She herself was threatened with being lynched and she fled Memphis on May 27, 1892. A mob destroyed the offices of her newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. The mob left a note saying anyone attempting to publish the paper again would be punished by death.

Raising the profile of the lynching issue to an international level, in 1893-1894 Wells went to England to speak, write and lobby. She was not getting help from our own government.

Wells called for the immediate implementation of federal policies that would protect black lives from lynching. She saw lynching as a tool used by white supremacy to prevent any Black social advancement. She early recognized lynching as a national crime that required a national remedy. For an article published in 1900 entitled “Lynch Law in America”. Wells wrote:

“Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of the hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death…without trial by jury…and without right of appeal.”

No issue better illustrates the failure of states’ rights to protect black lives than lynching. Between 1877 and 1950, there were over 4,000 lynchings in the United States. Until her death in 1931, Wells fought doggedly for anti-lynching legislation at the federal level. For decades, Southern senators blocked this legislation.

Many people continued to oppose federal government jurisdiction over what was seen as a state crime even though the record of the states was beyond dismal. In the rare cases when white people were arrested and charged at the state level for lynching, they were repeatedly acquitted by all-white juries.

Lynchings eventually declined in the 20th century but not until 1952 did a full year pass without a recorded lynching in the United States. Wells probably did more than anyone to raise popular awareness about the crimes committed and to advocate for solutions. No person is more associated with the anti-lynching movement in America.

Wells was a forerunner of today’s Black Lives Matter movement. The historian Isabel Wilkerson has described the epidemic of police shootings of black people as a continuation of lynching culture in the United States.

As part of Black History Month, part of our collective responsibility as Americans should be to rectify our historical records and history books. One way to do this is to recognize and celebrate figures from the past who deserve a place of honor, but who have been overlooked or shunted aside because the stories present unpleasant truths or conflict with our popular narratives. Ida Wells is such a person.

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