In the midst of Black History Month, I was scrolling through my YouTube subscriptions, and I noticed a video entitled “Ida B Wells: Princess of the Press.” The title instantly intrigued me. I clicked on the video and within the span of eleven minutes and two seconds, I felt completely dumbfounded. Why have I never heard of one of the most important figures in journalism and racial justice history? Why have I never learned about this wonderful human being in history class? Why are important black figures so hidden (no, that was not a Hidden Figures pun…) from modern society, but white figures who are of equal, if not less, importance are praised?
To confirm that my confusion was not an illusion, I took to Twitter and ran a poll, asking others if they had ever learned about Wells, and the great majority voted “no.” As an aspiring journalist, and a human being, I was appalled at this erasure of such imperative United States history. So, I am here today to inform you all and translate the magnificent story the powerful black journalist and activist, Ida B. Wells, into words.
Ida B. Wells, or lesser known as Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, was born a slave in Mississippi in 1862, to James and Lizzie Wells. Six months after her birth, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued, freeing both her and her parents. Mr. and Mrs. Wells then had eight other children, making that a total of nine children in their household. Because of her father’s job as a founder of Shaw University, a school for newly freed slaves, Wells received early schooling which would help her tremendously in her later life.
Years later, at the age of only sixteen, Ida B. had returned home from her schooling only to find out that her mother, father, and her youngest brother were all killed from the deadly yellow fever. Not taking one moment to mourn, she began to care for her siblings on her own and began her illegal job as a teacher.
Meaning that although Ida passed the teaching exam required for the position, she was underage, yet was able to convince the school board otherwise. She was determined to keep her family together, despite criticism that arose at the time. Following in 1882, Wells and her sisters moved in with their Aunt who resided in Memphis, Tennessee, while she studied at Fisk University, a predominantly black college in Nashville.
On May 4, 1884, a day that was remembered by Wells till her last living moment, a train conductor ordered Wells to give up her seat in the first class area and to move to the smoking car, which was crowded. Wells, who rightfully bought her ticket and deserved nothing less, refused, and was dragged out of the car by two men and the conductor. This had occurred after the Supreme Court Act was passed, prohibiting racial discrimination in public areas. Returning to Memphis not soon after, Wells hired a black attorney who attempted to sue the railroad itself but was paid off by the company. She then hired a white attorney and won her case and was granted a $500 award.
Wells recorded her story and published it in The Living Way, a dominant black weekly newspaper, which is where she gained publicity as well as her first journalist experience. Unfortunately, the Tennessee Court overruled this decision later, and Wells was forced to return her $500, despite the Civil Rights Act which was recently passed. Despite the overruling, this was a major win for African-Americans at the time, because this form of political justice was rarely ever seen.
Wells then decided to write about her experiences, but under the pen-name of “Lola.” She wrote about race, politics, and most popularly, lynching in the South. Her work was published in many black-owned newspapers and periodicals, and eventually owned the publication Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.
One of the many investigative journalism experiences Wells embarked on was the lynching 0f 1892 when three black grocery store owners were shot for opening their store across the street from a white-owned grocery store. The white owners were arrested and incarcerated, and a lynch mob murdered them in their cells during the middle of the night. Wells decided that these deaths deserved justice, so she traveled to the South to report. This, as well as other anti-lynching reports and speeches, led Wells to the White house, where she preached the need for reform and led a protest in spite of President William Mckinley. These were just a few of her successful accomplishments in her lifetime.
Aside from co-founding the National Association of Colored Women, the NAACP, and the first African-American kindergarten in her local community, Wells was an inspiration to everyone, especially to POC. Let us all strive to be as advocative, well-rounded and hard working as Ida B. Wells. She shares her morals and ideas in one quote that reads:
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”