Book note: Ida B. Wells’ autobiography

Last year Ida B. Wells, a black woman who died in 1931, received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her investigative reporting about lynching.

She lived in a time when white people could not only kill black people with impunity, but commonly turned the killing into a public spectacle.  She was a pioneer and one of the few who reported on this.

Black people deemed guilty of crimes, rather than being put on trial, were hanged, mutilated, burned alive or tortured to death while crowds looked on.  Lynchings were sometimes written up in local newspapers.  Public schools were let out at least once so that children could witness the spectacle.

Wells fearlessly went to the scenes of lynchings and riots in order to get an accurate picture of what really occurred, and her work brought the crime of lynching to the attention of the wider world.

Click to enlarge.

To learn more, I read her autobiography, which recently has been reissued.  She said she wrote it in order to provide a factual record of black struggles, and so there is little in it of her personal reflctions or feelings. She led an interesting life, but wrote about it in very prosaic way. 

Ida B. Wells was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the daughter of slaves and technically a slave herself.  

Her father, James Wells, was the son of a white slave owner and an enslaved black woman. The owner’s wife had no children and, when the owner died, his widow had Wells’ mother stripped naked and whipped. 

Her mother, Elizabeth, was born on a plantation in VIrginia and “sold South.”  She never was able to reconnect with her parents and siblings. Such were the realities of slavery.

Ida B. Wells’ parents were strict and loving, with high standards of personal behavior and a strong sense of independence.  They saw to it that their children got every educational opportunity offered by Reconstruction..

They died in a yellow fever epidemic, along with many of Wells’ siblings, when she was 16.  She went to work as a school teacher, supporting four younger siblings.

Over time she wrote for church publications, realized she had a talent for writing and became a  journalist.  This became a full-time job after she was fired from her teaching job for criticizing conditions in segregated black schools.

While in her 20s, she challenged segregation in a lawsuit, a decade before the Plessy vs. Ferguson legalizing “separate but equal” segregation.  She was traveling on a first-class train ticket, and a train conductor tried to force her to leave the first-class car and go to the smoking car.

She refused and resisted, and it took three men to eject her from the car.  She sued on the grounds she was denied what she paid for, was successful in a lower court and was offered a generous settlement if she would not contest an appeal.  Even though she could really have used the money, she refused, and lost the appeal.

The year 1892 found her in Memphis, Tennessee, the editor and part-owner of a newspaper called the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in Memphis, Tennessee.  It had a wide readership among African-Americans.  Illiterate black people bought it and had it read to them, and it was printed on special pink paper so they could read it.

Three black friends of hers, the owner of the People’s Grocery Store and two employees, were lynched by a mob.  She wrote many articles in protest, supported a boycott of white-owned businesses and advocated that black people leave Memphis for the new territory of Oklahoma, which many did.

She said she had been led to believe that lynching was a response to rape and other violent crime, but she began an investigation into lynchings and found that, as with her friends, they were often provoked by black people competing successfully with white people.

She also found that alleged rape cases were actually consensual relationships between black men and white women.  When she published this in her newspaper, an enraged mob destroyed the newspaper offices and press.  She was out of town at a A.M.E. Church conference at the time, and was warned she would be killed if she tried to come back.

She continued her anti-lynching crusade, first as a staff writer for the New York Age and then as a lecturer and organizer of anti-lynching societies.

She traveled to speak in a number of major U.S. cities and twice visited Great Britain for the cause.  Her lecture tours of Britain must have been one of the high points of her life, because she devoted more than 100 pages of her 360-page book to them.

Her parents’ training in ladylike behavior must have paid off, because she was accepted in the highest circles of British intellectuals and reformers, whose company she thoroughly enjoyed.  She was also able to hold her own in debate.

On the last night of her second tour, the British Anti-Lynching Committee was formed, which incuded the Archbishop of Canterbury and some 20 members of Parliament. 

Susan B. Anthony, who liked to latch onto high-achieving women and enlist them in the women’s suffrage cause, entertained Wells as a house guest at her home in Rochester, N.Y.  The two became life-long friends.

When Wells gave a talk about lynching, Anthony told a heckler that the white people in Rochester were just as bad as the ones down South.  When her private stenographer refused to take dictation from Wells, Anthony fired her on the spot.

Nevertheless, Wells told Anthony to her face that she was wrong to leave her friend Frederick Douglass behind when she spoke in favor of women’s suffrage in the South.  Anthony took the younger women’s criticism in good spirit.  She is one of the few historical figures of whom, the more I learn about, the greater my respect.

Click to enlarge.

In 1895 Wells married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a Chicago lawyer, editor, political activist and civil rights militant.  She adopted the name Wells-Barnett, instead of giving up her maiden name, which was unusual at the time.

It is characteristic that she wrote nothing about how they met, how they courted or what attracted her to him—only a simple statement that they married, followed by an account of the wedding ceremony and the guest list.

Barnett was a widower with two children, and the couple had four children together.  Wells thought of devoting herself full-time to raising her children, because she thought motherhood as important a profession as any other, but she kept being pulled back into equal rights work. 

But she must have done a good job as mother anyhow.  All six of her children grew up to have distinguished careers.

In 1898, people at a public meeting took up a collection to pay her expenses if she would go to Washington and ask President McKinley to investigate the lynching of a black postmaster.  She agreed to go, along with a nursing baby.  Her mission was unsuccessful and she wound up spending her own money.

Wells-Barnett contributed to the Chicago Conservator, her husband’s newspaper, and to other local journals; published a detailed look at lynching in A Red Record (1895); and was active in organizing local African American women in various causes, from the anti-lynching campaign to the women’s suffrage movement.

From 1898 to 1902 Wells-Barnett served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council.  In 1909, she participated in the meeting of the Niagara Movement and the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that sprang from it.

Although she was initially left off the NAACP’s controlling Committee of Forty, Wells-Barnett later became a member of the organization’s executive committee; however, disenchanted with the NAACP’s white and elite black leadership, she soon distanced herself from the organization.

In 1910 Wells-Barnett founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, which aided newly arrived migrants from the South.   They created a center that was a reading room and employment agency.

In 1913 she founded what may have been the first black women’s suffrage group, Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club.  From 1913 to 1916 she served as a probation officer of the Chicago municipal court. 

She helped found a kindergarten for black children, and a theater with a black repertory company.  And she continued to investigate and write about lynchings and anti-black race riots.

Wells-Barnett was critical of white reformers who thought they were entitled to leadership positions in inter-racial organizations, and of well-to-do black people who were more concerned with the good opinion of white people than the welfare of poor black people.

She had a strong sense of her own dignity and worth, and was unforgiving of insults and double-dealing.  But she never brought her quarrels into the public eye. 

Instead she would withdraw from organizations that treated her unfairly, and redirect her energies elsewhere.  There was never a shortage of work to be done or causes to be taken up.

The next to last chapter of her book brings her story up to 1920 and how she “came to the realization that I had nothing to show for all these years of toil and labor” and it was time “to make some preparation of a personal nature for the future, and this I set about to accomplish.”  That’s sad.

But the last chapter, which breaks off in mid-sentence, describes her protest against the American Citizenship Federation, which had black members, meeting in a whites-only hotel.  So she kept on until the very end.

Her autobiography was published in 1970, after being edited and proofread by her daughter, Alfreda M. Duster, and reissued in 2020.  The cause the Ida B. Wells fought for, equal justice for all regardless of race, has not yet been achieved.


The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States by Ida B. Wells-Barnett via Project Gutenberg.

Introduction to the 1970 edition by John Hope Franklin.

Ida B. Wells: the unsung heroine of the civil rights movement by David Smith for The Guardian.

Against All Odds: Ida B. Wells and her brave fight to end lynching in America by Clarissa Myrick-Harris for Smithsonian magazine.

Ida B. Wells won the Pulitizer: Here’s why that matters by Sarah L. Silkey for The Washington Post.

Tags: ,

2 Responses to “Book note: Ida B. Wells’ autobiography”

  1. O Says:

    Thank you for sharing! I had never heard of Ida Wells before.


  2. Jean Says:

    What a life!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: