Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) appears on Women’s Work on the main level of the quilt, walking arm in arm with Gloria Steinem. She is included because of her contributions as a journalist, and is notable for her investigative reporting on lynching in America.
Ida was born to slave patents in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862. However, at the age of 6 months, she and her family were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Following the civil war, her parents were active in Reconstruction. Her father joined the Freedman’s Aid Society and helped start
Shaw University. This school for newly freed slaves is where Ida received her early schooling.
At age of 16, Ida lost both parents and an infant brother in a Yellow Fever outbreak. As the oldest, she had to care for younger brothers and sisters. So, she convinced a local school administrator that she was 18 and was hired as a teacher. Over the next few years, Ida arranged for her brothers to work as carpenter apprentices, and moved her sisters to live with an aunt in Memphis, Tennessee. Ida returned to college and honed her journalistic skills at Fisk University and continued to work as a teacher.
Injustice in the South
In 1884, Ida bought a first class train ticket in Memphis. She boarded the train, but was denied a seat in first class. The conductor told to sit in the car reserved for blacks. Ida refused and an argument ensued. The conductor and fellow passengers forcibly removed her from the train. Ida sued the train company and won a $500 settlement in a circuit court. On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the ruling, and charged Ida for court fees. Outraged, she channeled her energy into several editorial articles published in black newspapers. Using the pseudonym “Iona,” she criticized Jim Crow laws and treatment of blacks in the south. Eventually, Ida owned and published her own newspaper, Free Speech, in Memphis.
In 1892, three balck men opened a grocery store in Memphis. Their success drew customers from the white owned store across the street. One night, a group of white men gathered to vandalize the store. In defending the shop, several white men were shot and injured. Officials arrested the black store owners. Later that evening, a white mob took them from their cells and hung them.
Investigation of Lynching
Outraged by the death of her friends, Ida carried out her own investigation of
lynching in the South. First, she published her findings in a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors. Later, she traveled to give lectures and wrote a book, A Red Record, detailing the treatment of blacks in the south. She documented the practice of lynching black men who challenged the authority of whites, or dared to be successful in politics, or business. Using her words, she effectively painted a picture of conditions for blacks in the South. In a speech she delivered in Boston on February 13, 1893, Ida reported,
…since invested with citizenship, the race has been indicted for ignorance, immorality and general worthlessness declared guilty and executed by its self constituted judges. The operations of law do not dispose of negroes fast enough, and lynching bees have become the favorite pastime of the South.
The brutal honesty of her reporting angered whites who descended on her newspaper office, destroyed the presses, The mob proved her words correct when they threatened to kill her if she returned to Memphis. Ida escaped to England where she continued her anit-lynching campaign, and brought international attention to racial injustice in America.
In 1895, Ida returned to the US, settled in Chicago, and married Ferdinand Barnett, a lawyer and newspaper editor. Together, they raised 4 children and continued to fight social injustice on many fronts. Ida was active in several social justice issues, including women’s suffrage, and equal education for blacks. She was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ida continued to write and lecture in the US, and abroad, until her death in 1931.
The False Characterization
Ida’s investigative reporting uncovered a common justification for lynching. Whites justified the murder of black men with the assertion that those men would sexually assault white women. Essentially, whites believed that lynching was necessary to protect the virtue of their wives and daughters.
It is important to note here, that multiple sources, over many decades, consistently show that sexual violence data, disaggregated by race, shows that perpetrators are most likely to be white. In fact, sexual violence by whites occurs at a level of more than double that of blacks. For current statistics visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website: RAINN.org.
My personal take away…
The research for Ida B Wells on Women’s Work led me to a startling realization. The false notion that black men are inherently “dangerous” exists in my own consciousness. Growing up in a white suburb of Kansas City, I had very few interactions with blacks, so how did I learn this? Upon reflection, I realized that the lessons were part of my growing up. For example, when my family drove into the city, through predominantly black sections of town, my parents instructed us to lock our doors. Now, in my 50’s, I’m adamant that I’m not racist. However, driving through Denver, the thought that I should lock my car door sometimes pops into my mind. Those irrational ideas still echo in my head. Because I’m aware, I will stop it, and I’ll speak up when others perpetuate that idea.
See the Women’s Work Quilt
See Ida B Wells on Women’s Work in person. This quilt will debut as a featured work in the exhibit Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes, Women’s Rights, at the Clinton Presidential Library, in September 2021. Look for more details on the Events page of this website. Follow this blog for more stories of amazing women. Follow this link to see more of Lea’s Portrait Quilts.
Learn more about Ida B. Wells…
Biography.com Editors (2020, June 24). Ida B. Wells Biography. A&E Television Networks and the Biography.com website. https://www.biography.com/activist/ida-b-wells
Norwood, Arlisha (2017). Ida B. Wells-Barnett. National Women’s History Museum. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ida-wells-barnett.
Steptoe, T. (2007, January 19) Ida Wells-Barnett (1862-1931). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/barnett-ida-wells-1862-1931/
Editors of BlackPast.org (2007, January 29). Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law In All Its Phases” transcript of speech delivered at Boston’s Tremont Temple on February 13, 1893,as published in Our Day magazine, May 1893. BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/uncategorized/1893-ida-b-wells-lynch-law-all-its-phases/
Ida B Wells, The Red Record Lynching in the United States. Available free through pdfbooksworld.com. https://www.pdfbooksworld.com/The-Red-Record-by-Ida-B-Wells-Barnett
Wells-Barnett, Ida B., “Southern horrors : lynch law in all its phases,” Digital Public Library of America, http://dp.la/item/3f4d5d3a67f8ce16f1b00b3cb01dc143
Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. , None. [Between 1940 and 1960?] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2009633545/.