Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an activist in the truest sense of the word. Born in Mississippi in 1862, Well-Barnett was born into enslavement. Her earliest childhood memories were of Reconstruction when her parents were politically active. Her parents also stressed the importance of education. Shortly after the Civil War, Wells-Barnett’s parents taught themselves how to read and she learned immediately after that.
Sadly, yellow fever hit her family, killing both her parents and her youngest sibling. Wells-Barnett assumed the role of head of household of 16 and entered the teaching profession to support her remaining six siblings. To secure the position, she convinced the school administrators that she was 18 years old.
Wells-Barnett always spoke up when faced with injustice. She stood up against a conductor who sought to remove her from a train; biting him when he forcibly tried to remove her. She sued the train company and won a $500 settlement. However, her victory was overturned in the federal courts.
As a schoolteacher in Memphis, Ida lost her job due to criticizing the conditions of Memphis Schools. She wrote some scathing editorials about the conditions that Black teachers and children were forced to teach and learn in—they could still be written today. While Ida was a teacher and wrote under the pseudonym, Iola, her voice was strong enough that her contract was not renewed.
The school district closed a door to a teacher and opened a window for a journalist. Her life’s passion turned to journalism on the issue of lynching and justice-oriented issued for the Black community.
The People must know before they can act…
When her friend was lynched in Memphis, she purchased a pistol and wrote an editorial about the lynching and told Black people to flee Memphis.
Wells-Barnett went on to pen numerous anti-lynching pieces. She documented 728 lynching cases within an eight-year span using the Chicago Tribune to procure her research.
Her pieces enraged whites. She faced threats to her life. After a white mob destroyed her office, Ida was “exiled” to Chicago in 1892. She traveled abroad in addition to writing more editorials on lynching, to appeal to a foreign audience.
Those who commit the murders, write the reports.
Ida B. Wells also cared about advancing the cause of women’s suffrage, but not at the expense of Black people. She challenged white women of the suffrage movement who disregarded or ignored lynching or who didn’t want to include Black women in any newly secured rights. Although Wells-Barnett was polarizing due to her lack of compromise, she continued to remain active the suffrage movement. She founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, to deal with issues concerning both civil rights and women’s suffrage.
The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them
In 1922, Ida supported an anti-lynching bill in Congress. Ninety-nine years later, no such bill has passed in Congress for “fears” of being applied incorrectly.
Wells-Barnett is an example of an educator turned activist that never relented for the sake and comfort of white people. What mattered was the well-being and safety of Black people. As educators we must apply the same tactic on behalf of Black children—never relenting for the comfort of others. We must stand boldly on their behalf, just as Wells-Barnett.
Ida is a hero who left us with lessons that have endured time and movements. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame.
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