Ida B. Wells-Barnett provides the blueprint for Black journalists and activists today
Born into slavery in Mississippi during the Civil War, Wells-Barnett came of age during Reconstruction — a pivotal moment for liberated Black people struggling for their rights. And she was a champion for civil rights and Black women’s suffrage who fought against the injustices of Jim Crow.
For example, in 1891 Wells-Barnett was fired from her job as a teacher in a segregated Memphis public school after openly criticizing the conditions of the city’s Black schools.
Further, while traveling from Memphis to Nashville in May 1884, Wells-Barnett was removed from a train for refusing to sit in the Blacks-only car after purchasing a first-class ticket, biting the hand of one of the men who ejected her from the train. She subsequently sued the railroad company, winning $500 in a lower court case before the state supreme court overturned the judgment. The experience was a turning point, prompting Wells-Barnett to pursue writing.
At a time when Black America faced a reign of terror and racial violence from the White mob, this dynamic Black woman used journalism as a weapon to wage a one-woman campaign against lynching. Through her articles in Black-owned publications, and subsequently as the owner of two newspapers, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech, Wells-Barnett laid bare the brutality of the Jim Crow South and the violence against Black bodies. Her writings eviscerated the claims that Black men were lynched for raping White women. In contrast, rape was not alleged in two-thirds of the lynchings, while in some cases White women attempted to cover up a consensual relationship with a Black man.
“In slave times the Negro was kept subservient and submissive by the frequency and severity of the scourging, but, with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged, he was killed,” Wells-Barnett wrote in The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. “The White man’s victory soon became complete by fraud, violence, intimidation and murder.”
When a White lynch mob in 1892 murdered three Black men for owning a grocery store that took business away from a White business, Wells-Barnett wrote about it. Her commentaries infuriated local White folks, as a mob burned down her press and threatened to kill her, forcing her to leave Memphis and move to Chicago.
This was the intended role of the Black press–as a change agent illuminating Black suffering and empowering its voices, which Ida B. Wells-Barnett embodied. Ida brought that smoke. Given that Black people are just as embattled now, fighting for their lives as they were back then, this shero provides a roadmap to follow.