Ida B Wells, an investigative journalist, was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16,1862, the first of eight children. She was born into slavery during the Civil War. The Wells family, as well as the rest of the enslaved people of the Confederate states, were decreed free by the Union thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation about six months after Ida’s birth. Ida’s parents instilled in her the importance of education. Ida enrolled at Rust College. Two years later she was expelled when she started a dispute with the University President. Ida had moxie!
In 1878, Ida visited her grandmother. While she was there, a yellow fever epidemic hit her hometown. The disease took both of her parents and her infant brother. Ever resourceful, left to raise her brothers and sister, she dropped out of school at age 16 and convinced a nearby country school administrator she was 18, landing a job as a teacher. Ida had ingenuity!
On one fateful train ride from Memphis to Nashville, in May 1884, Ida reached a personal turning point that resulted in her activism. After having bought a first-class train ticket, she was outraged when the train crew ordered her to move to the car for African Americans. She refused on principle.
As she was forcibly removed from the train, she bit one of the men on the hand. She sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement in a circuit court case. The decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. This injustice led Ida to pick up a pen and write. She eventually bought a share in Memphis Free Speech, a newspaper and headlined in it. She is our first female co-owner and editor. Ida had grit!
A lynching of a friend led Ida to begin an anti-lynching campaign. In 1892, three African American men set up a grocery store. Their new business drew customers away from a white-owned store in the neighborhood, and the white store owner and his supporters clashed with the three men on a few occasions. One night, Moss (Ida’s friend) and the others guarded their store against attack and ended up shooting several of the white vandals. They were arrested but they didn’t have a chance to defend themselves against the charges. A lynch mob took them from their jail cells and murdered them. Motivated by the horrific murder of her friend, Ida channeled her fear and anger into her work and started a crusade against lynching in America. Ida was relentless!
Ida wrote newspaper articles decrying the lynching of her friend and the wrongful deaths of other African Americans. Putting her own life at risk, she traveled in the South, gathering information on other lynching incidents. She documented 728 lynching between 1884-1892. She published her findings in a pamphlet and wrote several columns in local newspapers. When she wrote an editorial that white women could be attracted to black men, challenging a myth, it pushed some of the city’s white people over the edge. A mob stormed the office of her newspaper, destroying all of her equipment. She was warned that she would be killed if she ever returned to Memphis. Moving to Chicago, Ida wrote an in-depth report on lynching in America for the New York Age, an African American newspaper. Ida was resilient!
In 1898, Ida brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House, leading a protest in Washington, D.C., and calling for President William McKinley to make reforms. Working on behalf of all women, again Ida called for President Woodrow Wilson to put an end to discriminatory hiring practices for government jobs. Her accomplishments are too long to list. What’s important to note is that she did all of it in the face of fear. Ida was afraid!
Ida simply used what she had —her pen — to educate (because we don’t know what we don’t know), to inspire (because everyone needs rallying from time to time), to encourage (because entire groups of people are discouraged). If she were here, Ida would likely tell us fear is just part of it. No one makes a difference without doing it afraid. Use what you have to educate, inspire, encourage and do it afraid. Ida would be proud!