On March 25, 1931, Illinois, and the nation, mourned the loss of suffragist and civil rights icon Ida B. Wells. But before she became a crusader for women’s rights, Wells came to national attention as a crusader against lynchings of African Americans in the South.
Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi during the Civil War. She later moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she worked as a schoolteacher and journalist. She became a pioneer of investigative journalism, risking her life to uncover the stories behind several lynchings. When she published an anti-lynching editorial in 1892 in The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight — a paper she co-owned — a white mob ransacked and destroyed the paper’s office.
Wells never returned to Memphis. She became popular on the lecture circuit and traveled the northern states and Europe to talk about racism and lynching and the fight for equal rights. She eventually settled in Chicago, where she and her husband, civil rights advocate Ferdinand Barnett, published the Chicago Conservator.
As a woman, Wells was often barred from male-dominated activist meetings, so she expanded her activism to women’s rights, especially the right to vote. When women’s rights group shut her out because she was Black, she started several organizations for Black women. Her editorials criticizing the powerful Women’s Christian Temperance Movement forced the group in 1895 to take a public stance against lynching.
Wells went on to be a founding member of the NAACP. Today, there are several journalism awards, schools, streets and other landmarks named in her honor.
In 2020, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, Ida B. Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for “her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
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