Historical Figures

Ida B. Wells, leader of the civil rights movement

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (1862 – 1931), journalist, was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States. She also campaigned for women's rights, including the right to vote.


Daughter of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Warrenton Wells and James Wells, both slaves, Ida Bell was born in Holly Springs (Mississippi) on July 16, 1862. A few weeks later, Abraham Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Independence and declared free the slaves residing in the territory of the Southern Confederacy.

Ida goes to university in Holly Springs but the death of both her parents and her youngest brother during an epidemic of yellow fever pushes her to stop her studies. So that her five brothers and sisters are not sent to foster homes, she takes a job as a teacher, and watches over them with the help of her grandparents.

The lawsuit against the railway company

In 1883, Ida B. Wells took three of her siblings to Memphis to live with an aunt. She continues to teach, and takes classes during her summer holidays. At the time, she already had strong political opinions, in particular on women's rights, but it was the following year that an event would lead her to have a public existence:on May 4, 1884, the conductor of the train she is in instructs her to leave her first class seat and go to the smoking compartment, which is already crowded. 71 years before Rosa Parks, Ida refuses to leave her place. The conductor and two passengers then drag her out of the train. Back in Memphis, she embarks on a lawsuit against the railroad company, which she wins; the judgment was however quashed by the Supreme Court of Tennessee in 1885.

Free Speech and Headlight

After this event, Ida B. Wells first wrote an article for The Living Way , the weekly of a black church, then a weekly column. While continuing to teach in elementary school, she got a job at the local newspaper Evening Star . In 1889, at age 27, she became publisher and co-owner of Free Speech and Headlight , an anti-segregation newspaper that focuses on civil rights and racial discrimination. The same year, a friend of his, Thomas Moss, opened a grocery store, the People's Grocery Company, on the outskirts of Memphis, which competed with a store owned by whites.

In March 1892, the People's Grocery Company was the target of a riot, during which three whites were shot and wounded. The three owners of the shop, including Thomas Moss, are imprisoned. A mob invades the prison, the same night, and massacres the three men. Following the lynching of her friends, Ida writes a reaction in the Free Speech and Headlight, in which she urges her fellow black citizens to leave Memphis:

“There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons. "
(There's only one thing left to do; take our money and leave a town that will never protect our lives or our property, won't guarantee us a fair trial, but kills us in cold blood when we are accused by white people.”

Denunciation of the lynching

6,000 blacks actually left the city, while others organized boycotts in protest. Ida B. Wells, for her part, embarked on an investigative work on the lynching of blacks in the South of the United States. His first article, concluding that blacks caught having consensual sex with white women are often accused of rape to justify lynching, caused a scandal. On May 27, 1892, his newspaper was destroyed in retaliation. Ida then moved to New York and published her articles on the lynching in the New York Age . She also began to express herself at meetings, as far away as Europe, and asserted herself in the public square, notably organizing a boycott of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, which did not mention African-Americans. Following this campaign, she moved to Chicago and became an editor at the Chicago Conservator .

Ida publishes two books on lynching, one analytical and the other based on statistics:Southern Horrors:Lynch Law in all its phase (1892) and The Red Record (1892-1894) . Thereafter, living in Chicago, she continued to campaign for civil rights, endeavored to try to improve the living conditions of her black fellow citizens and raised her four children. After her retirement, she embarked on writing an autobiography, Crusade for Justice. She will never finish it.

Ida Wells died of uremia on March 25, 1931. She was enshrined in the National Women's Hall of Fame.