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Ida B. Wells, Great Chicagoan, Great American, Great Woman

By: Scott M. Ellingson, section editor for the bloc[k] beat (selling2@uic.edu)

If you glanced at your Facebook newsfeed yesterday, you might know that March 8th was International Women’s Day. In the 100 years since its founding, women have achieved the right to vote in almost every nation on earth. We at the Chicago Block feel it is appropriate to focus on the contributions of Ida B. Wells to Chicago, America, and the world for her dynamic work as a suffragist, newspaper editor, journalist, and publisher, co-founder of the NAACP, politician, mother, and wife.

We at the Chicago Block feel it is appropriate to focus on the contributions of Ida B. Wells to Chicago, America, and the world for her dynamic work as a suffragist, newspaper editor, journalist, and publisher, co-founder of the NAACP, politician, mother, and wife.

Born in 1862 as a slave in Mississippi, Wells had lost both her parents by the age of sixteen and took up a job as teacher in a black elementary school to support her five younger brothers and sisters. After moving to Memphis in 1883, she continued teaching elementary school and spent her summer vacations at Fisk University in Nashville.

Her first visit to Chicago was in 1893, to take part in the boycott of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The boycott, organized by Wells, Frederick Douglass, and other black activists published and distributed 20,000 copies of the pamphlet “Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition” in Chicago and around the country. The spirit of the pamphlet can be summarized in this selection from F.L. Barnett, written about the fact that the Columbian guards for the exposition were informally segregated by race, with all black candidates ruled physically unfit to qualify.

“It had been determined that no colored man should be employed on the force of the Columbian Guards and that determination was not to be varied. … Theoretically open to all Americans, the Exposition practically is, literally and figuratively, a “White City,” in the building of which the Colored American was allowed no helping hand, and in its glorious success he has no share”

In 1895, she became Ida B. Wells-Barnett after marrying Ferdinand L. Barnett, editor of the Oldest Black Newspaper in Chicago, The Chicago Conservator. She moved from Memphis in the 1890s to her lifelong home in the Douglas neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Her gray stone mansion at 3624 S. Martin Luther King Dr. is a Chicago landmark and a National Historic Landmark. In 1915, she campaigned for the election of Oscar Stanton De Priest, the first black Alderman in Chicago and then later the first black representative in the House elected outside of the South.

Wells’ set a collision course for her first public fight with the white establishment of the south in 1881 when Tennessee passed the first Jim Crow law in America that segregated all trains in Tennessee into white and black cars. Despite the law, Wells continued to sit in the “ladies car.” On May 4, 1884 the white conductor ordered her to leave the ladies car and sit in the “colored car.”

She refused and bit the conductor’s hand when he tried to force her out of the seat. Recounted in her 2000 biography, Ida B. Wells: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Rather than give up, the conductor, the stationmaster, and the baggage man grabbed her by the arms and hoisted her over their heads while she thrashed and resisted. She sued the railroad and won a $500 award in local court. It appeared that she had won a decision against segregation in the south. But that victory was short-lived, as the local court’s verdict was reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, who forced her to pay the railroad’s legal fees.

Her most famous public tour was her lifelong crusade against Lynching in America. In 1893, three of her friends were murdered by a lynch mob in Memphis. Eight more men were lynched the same week. The most prominent newspapers in Memphis called for her murder after she spoke out against the violence. In response to the threats against her and her family, she bought a pistol, determined to “sell her life as dearly as possible if [she was] attacked.” It’s reported that she kept that loaded pistol in her desk until her death in 1931.

Moving out Memphis, she continued to publish newspaper articles and pamphlets investigating lynchings from Louisiana to New York. Her writing was deft and her arguments so sophisticated that it was difficult to ignore her provocative conclusions. She traveled around the world to protest lynching laws and founded dozens of organizations for black women solidarity and to promote women’s suffrage. There could hardly be a better representative for the kind of ambition and strength that we celebrate on International Women’s Day, than Ida B. Wells. Her legacy is also a reminder that International Women’s Day should be a celebration everyday.

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