By Ayesha K. Mustafaa,
Ida B. Wells (Barnett) was freed from slavery at 9-months-old, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed – born during the Civil War in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862.
Freed from slavery and belonging to a people whom it was illegal to teach to read and write, the miracle of Ida B. is reflective in that she is referred to as “a skilled writer.” Her parents placed great importance on education and enrolled her in Rust College in her hometown.
Rust was the second oldest college in Mississippi’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities system (HBCUs) and one of 10 founded before 1869.
Her spirit to speak up and challenge certain “norms” became clear as she was expelled from Rust for getting into an argument with the college’s president. She later attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.
Both her parents and one sibling brother died from Yellow Fever, leaving her to take care of her remaining six siblings. She moved to Memphis, Tenn., and her tenacity stood out as she refused to give up her first-class seat on a train from Memphis to Nashville – where she was enrolled in Fisk.
She filed a lawsuit against the train car company because she was removed from her first-class seat, winning the $500-case but it was overturned by a federal court.
In March of 1892, she published articles on the lynching of three black men – Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart in her crusading style of journalism.
She married Ferdinand Barnett in 1895, with whom she had four children. However, she continued to write under her maiden name. With her husband, she established a newspaper, the Memphis Free Press.
She was researching lynchings when her newspaper in Memphis was firebombed, the violence against her growing till she had to escape to Chicago, Ill. There, she began writing for the Chicago Defender, where she continued investigating lynchings of black men.
She became an international traveler, exposing the system of lynchings wherever she went. She also confronted white women of the suffragette movement, as they ignored lynchings. Countering the suffragettes, she helped to found the National Association of Colored Women’s Club.
Revered also as a leader in the civil rights movement, in 1909 she was considered in some writings as one of the founders of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) – although not officially listed.
View a short clip of her suffragette activism at: https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/suffrage60seconds_ida_b_wells.htm
Within this clip, it is noted: “You cannot spell F-O-R-M-I-D-A-B-L-E without IDA.” She passed in Chicago in 1931.
In 2020, she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor for journalists, “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
As a note upon being awarded the Pulitzer, a relative said, “… The only thing she had was raw courage.”
In 2022, Mattel released the Ida B. Wells “Barbie Doll” series – indeed another unique honor for this Mississippi woman of true grit and courage, born at time when it was illegal to teach her how to read..
(References: womenshistory.org, National Park Service)
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