Biography: IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT (1862-1931)

Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862 and rose to national prominence as a fearless campaigner against lynching and for the rights of African Americans. As a journalist, editor, publisher, founder and co-founder of numerous activist organizations, Wells pioneered investigative journalism and activist methods that are used today. Despite this, she is not as well-known as her contemporaries Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Washington Carver and Marcus Garvey.

Wells was inspired by her parents who were active in the Reconstruction struggle for Black political rights in Mississippi after the Civil War. Orphaned at 16, she became the caretaker and provider for five siblings. In 1884, seventy-two years before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Wells defied Jim Crow on the railways by refusing to move from the first-class ladies coach into the smoking car. It took three men to remove Wells from the seat. Wells sued the railroad company and won $500 in damages. Her report on this suit marked the beginning of her career as a journalist.

In 1892 Wells published Southern Horrors: Lynching in all its Phases, a pamphlet that challenged the “thread-bare lie” of rape used to justify violence against Blacks. She documented cases in which Black men were accused of rape after having a consensual relationship with a white women. Making these arguments during the Victorian and racist era in which she lived, enraged many whites and even challenged the predjudices of some of her Black colleagues. The office of her newspaper in Memphis, the Free Speech, was destroyed after she published an editorial on the same subject.

Wells was not to be silenced. She travelled alone throughout the South to investigate violence against Blacks, taking statements from witnesses, studying newspaper accounts, records and photographs of lynchings and at times, hiring private investigators. She published A Red Record and Mob Rule in New Orleans and collaborated with Frederick Douglass on a pamphlet protesting the exclusion of Blacks from the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. She was invited to address audiences throughout the country and made two trips to England to gain the support of activists there in her campaign against lynching.

In 1895 Wells moved to Chicago where she married fellow activist, lawyer and newspaper publisher Ferdinand Barnett. She became the editor of the Chicago Conservator and co-founded many activist organizations including the National Equal Rights League and the National Association of Colored Women. She participated in the first meeting of the Niagara Movement and helped lay the groundwork for the NAACP but criticized the organization for its lack of militancy. She founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first suffrage organization for Black women in Illinois and challenged white suffrage organizations “neutrality” on Black suffrage for the sake of the “larger cause.” As the president of the Negro Fellowship League, she established the first kindergarten serving Black children in Chicago and a comprehensive service center for Black migrants from the South. She also worked as a probation officer and did legal advocacy for Black defendants. She visited people in prison, attended their parole hearings and opened her home to those recently released from jail.

In addition to her Chicago-based activities, Wells continued muckraking and organizing for justice in response to racial violence in other parts of the country. In 1917 she published The East St. Louis Massacre, The Greatest Outrage of the Century and though it took years, finally won the acquittal of the man who had been scapegoated for the riot. Later in 1917, soon after the US entered WW I, she protested the hanging of thirteen Black soldiers in Houston, TX, in the aftermath of a riot sparked by soldiers refusal to abide by segregation. Wells tried without success to find a church that would sponsor a memorial and then distributed buttons with the words, “In Memorial MARTYRED NEGRO SOLDIERS.” In 1927 she wrote exposes on the racism in relief efforts after a Mississippi River flood and demanded action from Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover.

In her final years, Ida B. Wells-Barnett worked on her autobiography, Crusade for Justice: the Autobiography of Ida. B. Wells. It was not until 40 years after her death that it was published, thanks to her daughter, Alfreda Duster’s persistence.

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    Crusade for Justice, The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.

    Duster, Alfreda M., ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

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    When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America.

    Giddings, Paula. New York:William Morrow, 1984.

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    Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

    Harris, Trudier. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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    The Life of Ida. B. Wells.

    McMurry, Linda O. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Film: A Passion For Justice

    by William Greaves.

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