With ‘Ida,’ a civil rights pioneer’s story is finally told
by James A Miller
Unlike Rosa Parks, the mother of the modern civil rights movement, Ida B. Wells is hardly a household name. But she should be. The “crusader for justice” who launched the campaign against lynching in late 19th-century America, Wells was routinely excised from the historical record by many contemporary chroniclers, and some black leaders, and died before she finished writing her autobiography. Paula J. Giddings’s splendid new biography will go a long way toward restoring Wells’s place in the historical record.
Giddings, a professor at Smith College, whose groundbreaking 1984 history “When and Where I Enter: the Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America” powerfully recounted the centuries-long struggle of black women with sexism and racism, focuses her attention in “Ida” on the ways in which these forces played themselves out in the life of one courageous and indomitable woman.
Born in Mississippi to parents who had made a remarkable transition from slavery to freedom, Wells recalled in her autobiography a happy childhood that was shattered at 16, when a yellow fever epidemic swept through, killing her parents and brother. Wells, determined to care for her surviving five siblings, dropped out of college and found a teaching position, her first step into public life.
Wells grew up during the tumultuous post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction era that historian Rayford Logan called the “Nadir,’ the lowest point of African-American life, defined by the rapid deterioration of social, economic, and political conditions in the black community. Her entry into adulthood was marked by her refusal to abide by the rules of this emerging Jim Crow regime. In 1883, she was pried from her railroad seat after refusing to leave a first-class ladies car. Ida sued the railway and won. This event signaled the beginning of her life as a political activist and public intellectual. By the late 1880s, her interests in literature, racial uplift, and social and moral reform had converged to shape her development as a journalist, writing regular columns with a sharp tongue and an acid wit. Her growing prominence led to her appointment as editor and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech & Headlight in 1889, making her “the only black woman of record to be an editor and chief and part owner of a major city newspaper.” As editor, she revealed the “steely moralistic characteristics” that would characterize her mission, “not only a certain social obtuseness and a look-no-further sense of right and wrong, but a profound lack of empathy for those who could not get out of the way when the chips, loosed by her righteous indignation, began to fall.” In the early 1890s, her indignation came to focus on the increased incidents of lynching nationally.
In March 1892, while visiting Natchez, Miss., Wells received the shocking news of the lynching in Memphis of a close friend and two other black men. The killings attracted national attention, and Ida wrote a somber and riveting editorial, urging black Memphis residents to abandon the city. “There is therefore only one thing left that we can 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.” This launched the nation’s first anti-lynching movement, as thousands of blacks left Memphis.
Wells increasingly turned her eye to the claims of rape that often provided the motive, or pretext, for these public spectacles. She began to travel to the scenes of lynchings, interviewing witnesses and families of victims. In one editorial, she warned, “If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction: a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” In the ensuing firestorm, Ida was vilified by the white Memphis press, her character assailed, her life threatened. At the end of May, a mob attacked the newspaper offices. Ida was effectively exiled from Memphis and would not return for 30 years.
Giddings’s riveting account of this episode exemplifies the meticulous research that fuels her absorbing re-creation of the life and times of this remarkable woman. These early battles, Giddings points out, mark the beginnings of her activism, not the end:
“After being driven from Memphis, she was involved and/or wrote about national politics and reform issues regarding labor; women (black and white) and African Americans. Wells traveled, twice, to the British Isles, crisscrossed the country from New York to California, and finally settled in Chicago, where she married a like-minded lawyer and newspaper editor, Ferdinand L. Barnett, bore four children, and balanced motherhood and activism with mixed success. During this period, she was a catalyst for the creation of the first national black women’s organization, the National Association of Colored Women; she founded a black settlement house; she was a member of the NAACP’s ‘founding forty’; and worked with Hull House’s Jane Addams.”
In her introduction, Giddings recounts how Wells came to inhabit her imagination. This compelling and definitive biography will lay claims on the imaginations of readers as well.