Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Fearless anti-lynching crusader, suffragist, women’s rights advocate

By Deborah O’Rell

In reading and researching Ida B. Wells-Barnett for this blog, what resonates in every article about her was her courage. This woman fiercely spoke her mind. She was a writer, a journalist, a teacher, and an activist and was a founding member the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

She was born in 1862. At age 16, her parents died from a yellow fever epidemic. She provided for her siblings by teaching. On a trip from Nashville to Memphis, she had purchased a first-class ticket. She refused to move to the ‘colored car’. This was her Rosa Parks moment. After being forcibly removed from the train, she later sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad and won. The Tennessee Supreme Court later reversed the decision.

She published articles that were critical of the quality of the education and lack of opportunities for African American children. When her teaching contract was not renewed, she invested in and was the editor of The Memphis Free Press.

In 1892, three of her friends were lynched. This began her tireless efforts in the anti-lynching campaign. She started writing editorials advocating for justice and a halt to this crime. She described in detail the horrors of the crime and the statistics relating to the numbers of African American men being lynched, often for crimes they did not commit.

In 1895 she married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a Chicago lawyer, editor, and public official, and adopted the name Wells-Barnett. She went on to have four children but continued her crusade, mostly staying in Chicago.

She published regularly in the Chicago Conservator, her husband’s newspaper, and other local journals; published a detailed look at lynching in A Red Record (1895); and was active in organizing local African American women in various causes, from the anti-lynching campaign to the suffrage movement. She founded what may have been the first black woman suffrage group, Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club.

In 1910, she founded and became first president of the Negro Fellowship League, which aided newly arrived migrants from the South. She was the first African American woman to join the NAACP but never truly made a mark within the organization. She disagreed with their less radical, less progressive tactics.

Yes, of course she did.