Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was an educator and journalist who began her civil rights activism in response to racist incidents she experienced in Memphis, Tennessee. Born into slavery in Mississippi, Wells had moved to Memphis in 1883 to further her teaching career, working to support herself and her siblings after her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic.

Ida B. Wells integrated the 1913 Suffrage March in Washington D.C. by marching with her colleagues in the Illinois Delegation.

In 1884, Wells was forcibly removed from a train car because of her race and she sued the railroad for infringement of her rights, initially winning her case although it was later overturned on appeal. She wrote about the incident in a local newspaper and subsequently began writing on race issues for local and national newspapers. In 1889 she became co-owner of Free Speech and Headlight, a Memphis newspaper. In 1891 she was removed from her teaching position because of her outspoken views.

After three close Memphis friends were unjustly arrested and lynched by a white mob in 1892, Wells began to look further into the growing number of lynching incidents in the U.S. Using her journalism connections and investigative abilities, Wells began to shed light on the larger problem and call national leaders to account. In 1892, a white mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight after Wells wrote repeatedly about lynching. Later that year, she published the pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.”

Unable to return to Memphis due to threats on her life, Wells moved to Chicago in 1893 and began a public speaking career to raise awareness and change public sentiment about lynching. She lived in Chicago for the remainder of her life. Wells married Ferdinand Barnett (a Chicago attorney and graduate of Union College of Law, which later merged with Northwestern Law School) and had four children. She continued to work for justice and confronted racism in all forms. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and a black women’s suffrage organization, the Alpha Suffrage Club, in 1913. Wells died in 1931 at the age of sixty-nine.

For more on Wells and her work for suffrage – see the blog post –


Dudden, Faye. Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America.

Feimster, Crystal. Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching.

Giddings, Paula. Ida: A Sword Among Lions. Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching.

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

Green, Elna. Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question.

Hendricks, W. A. Gender, Race, and Politics in the Midwest.

Materson, Lisa. For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932.

Terborg- Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920.

Wells, Ida B. and Alfreda M. Duster, ed. Crusade For Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells