Posts Tagged ‘Ida B. Wells’

Book note: Ida B. Wells’ autobiography

March 30, 2021

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.

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