July 16th in (Feminist) History

800px-mary_garrity_-_ida_b-_wells-barnett_-_google_art_project_-_restoration_cropOn this day in 1862 was the birth of Ida B. Wells, an African-American suffragist, feminist, journalist, and newspaper editor, who was known for being a leader in the early Civil Rights Movement, as well as a co-founder of the NAACP. One of eight children, she was born into slavery in Mississippi, just a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Following the Civil War, her father became involved in politics and campaigning for local black candidates. Ida later attended the same school as he did, Shaw University, only she was expelled for “rebellious behavior” after a confrontation with the college president.

She had gone to visit her grandmother when, at just 16 years old,  she received the news that the yellow fever had struck and killed both her parents and her baby brother. When their relatives tried to split them up, however, Ida protested. She got work as a teacher at a black elementary school so she could keep them together; she did her best despite the fact that she was paid only $30 a month, while white teachers were paid $80 a month. It was this experience with discrimination that fueled an already present interest in racism and politics. She continued working, and educated herself by taking classes in her spare time at Fisk University.

In 1884, she gained publicity when she refused to give up her seat in the train’s first-class ladies car. She eventually sued the railroad and won, even after her lawyer was paid off by the railroad company and she had to hire a second one. She won $500, but the train company eventually appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, who reversed the original court ruling. They actually stated that her only reason for filing the original case was to “harass” the train company and that she should have just tried to find a comfortable seat for the short ride, rather than arguing. She was made to pay the court costs after losing, and responded to the ruling by saying: “I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people…O God, is there no…justice in this land for us?”

Ida continued teaching, but began to write for the Evening Star in D.C., as well as the weekly newspaper The Living Way. She also edited and co-owned Free Speech and Headlight, which was an anti-segregation newspaper that published pieces on racism and injustice. Ida was known for writing the truth about the struggles faced by black people, including incidents involving lunch mobs in Memphis where her writing contributed to 6,000 black citizens fleeing the city to move away. It was following this initial writing that she began to research and document lynchings and delved into investigative journalism, speaking of the issues at black women’s clubs to earn more money to investigate them.

Ida would go on to publish numerous articles and pamphlets about the subject of lynching, and display the way it was not actually a result of criminal acts by black people but rather an attempt to punish and control them by white people. She also supported the suffrage movement, and eventually co-founded the NAACP; though her name was originally left off the list of founders, according to Ida, this was due to W. E. B. Du Bois excluding her purposefully, as they were occasional “rivals” in journalism. She also eventually founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and the National Afro-American Council.

Ida married her attorney in 1895; according to her diaries she chose her relationships (and thus her husband) based on how they got along mentally rather than involving anything to do with romance or physical relationships, though they did eventually have four children. She was one of the first American women to keep her own name and take her husband’s. She died in 1931 at the age of 68, of kidney failure. She never finished the autobiography she had been writing at the time.


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