People & Events
Ida B. Wells
A militant, one-woman, anti-lynching crusade, Ida B. Wells endured death
threats, the destruction of her business, and a hostile legal system as
she fought for justice for African Americans.
Ida B. Wells' career as an activist began in 1884. Just twenty-two, she
sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for failing to provide separate
but equal facilities for blacks, winning an initial award of $500 that
was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
After gaining prominence as a writer for black church newspapers, Wells
took part ownership in a Memphis paper, the "Free Speech and
Headlight," in 1889. Under her leadership, the "Free Speech"
prospered, delivering an equal rights message to blacks throughout the
In 1891 whites in Memphis lynched three black grocery operators, all of
whom were Wells' friends. When the "Free Speech" responded by
encouraging blacks to boycott white-owned businesses or abandon Memphis
altogether, angry whites destroyed the paper's offices and threatened to
murder anyone who attempted to resume publication.
Wells retreated to New York, where as part owner of the "New York
Age," she continued her crusade. She lectured across the North and in
venues as distant as Britain, where her compelling speeches fomented
After moving to Chicago, Wells married attorney Ferdinand Lee Barnett,
owner of the black newspaper, "The Conservator." She published the
first compilations of lynching statistics and risked her life to report
firsthand from scenes of racial violence. Wells supported many other
political causes as well, founding a community house in Chicago's
poorest neighborhood and forming the Alpha Suffrage Group, the first
such organization for black women. She died in 1931 at the age of