1. Ida Bell Wells was an African-American journalist and reformer. She was born on July 16th, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Though both her parents were slaves, the Emancipation was declared by Abraham Lincoln six months after Ida was born. They wanted their children to be educated, and put them in the newly started school for children of former slaves.
2. Ida Wells lost her parents to a yellow fever epidemic when she was 16. She took a job as a teacher in a school about 5 miles away from her home, stating that she was 18. She managed to look after her younger siblings with her salary. She later attended Rust College, and became a qualified teacher in Memphis.
3. One day, in Memphis, she bought a first class railroad ticket, and when she was seated, the conductor told her to sit in the ‘Jim Crow’ section, reserved for blacks. She refused, and when the conductor tried to force her, she bit his hand. She was finally removed with help from the guard. She sued the railroad company, and won, but finally lost when the case went to the Appeals Court.
4. Wells decided to fight back with her pen. Under the pen name ‘Iola’, she wrote a number of scathing articles on various aspects of the injustice meted out to African-Americans. In 1887, she attended the National Afro-American Press Convention, where she was named the most prominent correspondent for the black press, and was elected to the post of assistant secretary. She became co-owner and editor of The Free Speech and Headlight, a local black newspaper. Through her untiring efforts, the subscriptions increased from 1500 to 4000. She tackled touchy issues fearlessly, and as a result, lost her teaching job. This was the outcome of her article criticising the conditions prevailing in schools for black children.
5. Lynching was commonly practised in USA, during Wells’ lifetime. This was a form of mob justice, where people accused of crimes like rape, were killed without waiting for a trial. Not surprisingly, most of the victims of lynching were blacks. In 1892, Wells was out of town when she heard of the lynching of her friend, Tom Moss and two of his friends. This dreadful deed was carried out not because of any heinous crime, but because Moss was successfully running a grocery store, and had defended himself with the help of his friends when some white people attacked them. Wells was outraged, and gave vent to her feelings in print. She urged black people to move West, and advocated the boycott of white businesses and the new railroad line in Memphis. The white press responded by printing articles reporting Red Indian attacks and outbreaks of serious diseases in the West. Wells went on a 3 week investigative trip, and debunked these falsehoods when she returned.
6. Things finally came to a head when she wrote an article implying that in the many incidents of so-called rape, white women had had consensual sexual relations with black men. This so enraged the white citizens that they destroyed the printing press of Free Speech and burnt the building in which it was housed. Fortunately, Wells was away at the time. Her friends warned her that her life was in danger, so she stayed in New York, and got a job there.
7. Though she continued to write about lynchings, she was not satisfied with the response from the public. She then took a trip to Britain and other countries in Europe, where she addressed various gatherings. She was well-received, and her views were widely publicised by editors and organisations like the Society of Brotherhood of Man and the Anti-Lynching Committee.
8. When she returned to USA in 1893, she settled in Chicago. She worked for a black newspaper, Conservator, run by Ferdinand Barnett. In 1895, she married Barnett, and they had four children. Even after marriage and motherhood, Ida Wells-Barnett continued her crusades.
9. She was instrumental in the foundation of the National Association of Coloured Women (1896), and the National Association for Advancement of Coloured People (1909). She also helped to establish the first kindergarten in a black district in Chicago. She joined issue with Jane Addams to oppose segregation in city schools, and worked to gain voting rights for women.
10. Ida Wells-Barnett was an inspiration to innumerable men and women who followed in her footsteps to fight injustice and prejudice. When she died, in 1931, the African-American people were still a long way from gaining equality, but her trail-blazing efforts lit the way for all who came after her. She continues to inspire those who relentlessly pursue justice, even today.