Even in death, white America still treated Ida B. Wells like a second-class citizen.
As heroic a muckraker as ever there was one, it wasn’t until 2020 that Wells was honored with a Pulitzer Prize special citation, 89 years after she passed away in 1931.
But then again, Joseph Pulitzer was no less sensationalistic a “yellow journalist” than his rival, William Randolph Hearst.
If anything, Wells was above the prize given in his name.
And I write that without hyperbole. Even a prize committee as fundamentally flawed as the Pulitzers can recognize Wells for her “outstanding” and “courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
It is especially courageous, considering that Wells was born into enslavement in Confederate Mississippi. She had to pioneer both the civil rights movement and first-wave feminism in order to forge her distinguished career in American reportage throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On this platform she built, she was able to co-found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her life story testifies to the power of the art and science of journalism to effect positive change.
And so we will begin there.
Wells was born in Holly Springs on July 16, 1862, the oldest daughter of James and Lizzie Wells. Six months after her birth, the Union’s Emancipation Proclamation would declare her family free, along with all other enslaved bodies in the Confederate South during the American Civil War.
The Wells family continued to live in Mississippi as Reconstruction broke ground for Jim Crow, and so they faced racism well after emancipation.
Ida’s parents were active members of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party (not to be confused with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party). James Wells, who was involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society, helped start Shaw University for the formerly enslaved, known today as “Rust College.” James even went so far as to serve on their first board of trustees.
It was there that Ida received her early schooling.
Then, at age sixteen, tragedy struck her family.
A yellow fever outbreak killed both of Ida’s parents and one of her siblings, forcing her to drop out so she could care for her other siblings. She convinced a local school administrator that she was eighteen and supported her family as a teacher.
Then in 1882, Wells and her sisters moved in with an aunt in Memphis. Her brother had gone on to apprentice for carpenters while Wells went back to school at Fisk University in Nashville.
Once she started writing, it was about race and politics in the failed slave states.
Wells published her articles under the moniker “Iola” in Black newspapers and magazines. She would eventually co-own the Memphis Free Speech and Highlight.
In May 1884, Wells’s activism took root.
She bought a first-class train ticket, only for the crew to forcibly remove her when she refused to move to a segregated coach. She won $500 in a lawsuit with the railroad, but the Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the circuit court’s ruling.
This injustice motivated Wells to write as protest.
In addition to her journalism and publishing, Wells also taught at a segregated public school in Memphis. She was fired in 1891 for criticizing the condition of Black-only schools in the city.
Meanwhile, in 1892, her friend, Tom Moss – along with two of his business associates, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart – had shot white vandals during an attack on their grocery store. Before they could stand trial, a white mob had taken them from their jail cells and murdered them.
In response, Wells kicked off an anti-lynching campaign that same year.
She risked her own life to travel throughout the South, gathering information on other lynchings. After she ran one of these editorials, a white mob destroyed the equipment in her Memphis office. She was in New York at the time, but she was warned that if she ever returned to Memphis, it would mean her life.
It was in the North where Wells wrote an in-depth story on lynching for the New York Age under the editorship of T. Thomas Fortune, another former enslaved person.
In 1893, Wells published an examination of lynchings in America titled A Red Record. That same year, she lectured abroad to reformist whites, hoping to draw their attention to her cause.
When Black American exhibitors were banned from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Wells pamphleted against this decision with funding and support from none other than Frederick Douglass, as well as lawyer and editor Ferdinand Barnett.
Wells and Barnett would marry in 1895, and Wells would become known as “Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” The couple had four children together.
In 1896, Wells-Barnett established the National Association for Colored Women. In 1898, she would lead a protest in Washington, D.C., where she urged President William McKinley to make reforms. As mentioned earlier, she was a founding member of the NAACP, alongside the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, Archibald Grimke, Mary Church Terrell, Mary White Ovington, and Henry Moskowitz, among others.
Wells-Barnett would later cut ties with the NAACP after 1908, believing they lacked action-based initiatives.
Working on behalf of the National Equal Rights League, Wells-Barnett demanded that President Woodrow Wilson end discriminatory hiring practices against women, especially women of color. She also created the first kindergarten for Black children in her community, and in 1930, she made an unsuccessful bid for Illinois state senate.
She died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931, in Chicago.
What reformist writers can learn from Ida B. Wells is that her brand of progressive nonfiction is as needed now as it was in her lifetime. The police have replaced the lynch mobs (not that the boundary between the two has ever been anything but “porous,” at best). Expositional journalism works because, through the carnal viscerally of its language, it renders the truth into something as classical as fiction. Within that classicality, a revolutionary’s work will arouse readers to replicate that same aesthetic into our shared world.
That in mind, what wrong can you make right with your words?