Early in 2020 Ida B. Wells was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The citation read “For her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching. The citation comes with a bequest by the Pulitzer Prize Board of at least $50,000 in support of her mission. Recipients will be announced at a later date”.
This long-overdue recognition of the work she did during her life could not truly represent all that she did and sacrificed for African Americans.
Born into slavery July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation while still an infant. But discriminatory rules and racial prejudice were ever-present while she was growing up in Mississippi.
No doubt her father, James’, activism laid the groundwork for the activism Wells would engage in throughout her adult life. Her father was involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society and help start Shaw University, a school for the newly freed slaves (now Rust College), and served on the first board of trustees Both James and Ida’s mother, Elizabeth, were active in the Republican Party during Reconstruction.
It was at Shaw University that Wells received her early schooling. However, at the age of 16 she had to drop out when both of her parents and one of her siblings died in a yellow fever outbreak. This left Wells with the responsibility of caring for her other siblings. She managed to convince a nearby country school administrator that she was 18 and thus was hired as a teacher. Eventually, she moved with her siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, where she continued to work as an educator.
During the summer she attended classes at Fisk University. It was on a train ride between Nashville and Memphis that her activism took a major turn. Despite the fact that she had purchased a first-class ticket, the conductor accosted her and insisted she move to the "colored car". She refused. Wells was forcibly removed from the car but she managed to bite the hand of one of the men. She sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad and won in Circuit Court but the decision was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Angered by her treatment during this incident, Wells began writing articles about the issues of segregation and racism in the south under the pen name “Iola”. When in 1891 Wells wrote newspaper articles critical of the education available to African American children, she was fired. So she turned to journalism as a career and bought an interest in the Memphis Free Speech newspaper.
In 1892 she began an editorial campaign against lynching after three of her friends were lynched by a mob. Her investigations and documentation of lynching as a barbaric practice of whites to intimidate Blacks was carried nationally by Black-owned newspapers. Wells campaign led to the destruction of her newspaper’s office by a white mob while she was on a trip to New York.
Because of death threats, if she returned to Memphis, she stayed in the North. Undaunted, she continued her campaign as a staff writer for the New York Age and traveling widely as a lecturer and organizer of anti-lynching societies.
She settled in Chicago and in 1895 married Ferdinand Barnett, a lawyer, editor, and public official. She was then known as Ida B. Wells-Barnett. They had four children.
In the years after her marriage, she restricted her travel but did not curtail her activism. She contributed articles to a number of local journals and published a detailed book on lynching. Wells-Barnett was active in organizing local African American women in various causes from the anti-lynching campaign to the suffrage movement. She served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council from 1898-1902. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP).
In 1910 Wells-Barnett founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League. In 1913 she founded what may have been the first black woman suffrage group, Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club. She served as a probation officer of the Chicago municipal court from 1913 to 1916. Although Wells-Barnett confronted white women in the suffrage movement because they ignored lynching, she stayed active in the women’s rights movement. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club. In her later years, she focused on urban reform in Chicago.
Wells-Barnett died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois. She was 68 years old.