“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light upon them.”
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Wells was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862. Her father established Rust College where she received her early education, but was forced to drop out when she lost both parents to yellow fever. As the oldest she had to care for her siblings. At 16, convincing a nearby school administrator that she was 18, she landed a job as a teacher.
In 1882, Wells moved with her sisters to Memphis, Tennessee to live with their aunt and continued her education at Fisk University in Nashville. While on a train ride from Memphis to Nashville, Wells reached a turning point. Train personnel demanded she move to the car for African Americans even after she had purchased a first class ticket. Wells refused on principle, before being forcibly removed from the train. She bit one of the crew members and then sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement in a circuit case court. The decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Following this incident, Wells began writing about issues of race and politics in the South and was very prolific. She later became an owner of two newspapers: The Memphis Free Speech and Free Speech and Headlight. In addition to working as a journalist and publisher, Wells worked as a teacher in a segregated public school in Memphis but was fired for speaking openly about its conditions.
In 1892, Wells turned her attention to anti-lynching after a friend and two of his business associates were murdered. She is best known for her anti-lynching campaign and her outspoken editorials. Her newspaper office and equipment was destroyed as a result.
That didn’t stop her though, and she brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House in 1898 and called for President McKinley to make reforms.
In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand Barnett, with whom she had four children.
In 1896, Wells formed several civil rights organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women and in 1909, and she was one of the founders of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was an active fighter for women’s suffrage, particularly for Black women and founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, organizing women in the city to elect candidates who would best serve the Black community.
In the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington D.C., organizers asked women of color to march at the back of the parade. Wells refused, and stood on the parade sidelines to march with the white suffragists just as they were passing. Work done by Wells and the Alpha Suffrage Club played a crucial role in the victory of woman suffrage in Illinois on June 25, 1913 with the passage of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Act.
Her life is such a long record of fighting for civil rights, an incredible legacy of social and political activism, beginning as a teen to the day she died at 69.