African American journalist who led an antilynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s.
Ida Wells was the daughter of slaves. She was educated at Rust University, a freedmen’s school in her native Holly Springs, Mississippi, and at age 14 began teaching in a country school. She continued to teach after moving to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1884 and attended Fisk University in Nashville during several summer sessions. In 1887 the Tennessee Supreme Court, reversing a Circuit Court decision, ruled against Wells in a suit she had brought against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad for having been forcibly removed from her seat after she had refused to give it up for one in a “colored only” car. Using the pen name Iola, Wells in 1891 also wrote some newspaper articles critical of the education available to African American children. Her teaching contract was not renewed. She thereupon turned to journalism, buying an interest in the Memphis Free Speech.
In 1892, after three friends of hers had been lynched by a mob, Wells began an editorial campaign against lynching that quickly led to the sacking of her newspaper’s office. She continued her antilynching crusade, first as a staff writer for the New York Age and then as a lecturer and organizer of antilynching societies. She traveled to speak in a number of major U.S. cities and twice visited Great Britain for the cause. In 1895 she married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a Chicago lawyer, editor, and public official, and adopted the name Wells-Barnett. From that time she restricted her travels, but she was very active in Chicago affairs. Wells-Barnett contributed to the Chicago Conservator, her husband’s newspaper, and to 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 antilynching campaign to the suffrage movement. She founded what may have been the first black woman suffrage group, Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club.
From 1898 to 1902 Wells-Barnett served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, and in 1910 she founded and became first president of the Negro Fellowship League, which aided newly arrived migrants from the South. From 1913 to 1916 she served as a probation officer of the Chicago municipal court. She was militant in her demand for justice for African Americans and in her insistence that it was to be won by their own efforts. While she took part in the 1909 meeting of the Niagara Movement, she would have nothing to do with the less radical National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that sprang from it. Her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, was published posthumously in 1970.