Women Who Inspire: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Ida B. Wells-Barnett

A writer and activist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett left an inspirational legacy of social change and political heroism. Born into slavery in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the oldest of eight children. Her parents learned to read after slavery was abolished, and they were determined to educate their children.

Yet, tragedy struck Wells-Barnett’s family in 1878, when yellow fever took the lives of her parents and youngest sibling. Wells-Barnett took on the role as head of the family and cared for her six remaining siblings. She worked as a schoolteacher to support them.

Inspired to write

In 1884, riding a train from Memphis to Nashville, the crew ordered Wells-Barnett to move to the car for African-Americans. When she refused, two men forcibly removed her, and she bit the hand of one of them. She sued the railroad, and initially won. However, the case was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The experience inspired Wells-Barnett to begin writing.

After criticizing conditions of Black-only schools in Memphis, Wells-Barnett lost her teaching job. Instead, she turned to a full-time career in journalism, eventually becoming the first female co-owner and editor of a Black newspaper.

When a mob lynched one of her friends in 1892, she began to cover lynchings. She wrote about 728 cases in eight years. Her investigative work and published pieces led to threats of violence. The threats forced her to move to Chicago, Illinois.

Political activism and the suffrage movement

In 1893, she wrote a piece called “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition,” with the support of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a famed African-American lawyer named Ferdinand Barnett. In 1895, she married Barnett, and the couple had four children.

A firm supporter of the women’s right to vote, she co-founded the Alpha Suffrage Club and the National Associated of Colored Women’s Club, which addressed women’s suffrage, taught political activism, and promoted Black candidates. While Wells-Barnett was present for the founding off the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) she is not formally mentioned as a founder.

In her role with the National Equal Rights League, Wells-Barnett called on President Woodrow Wilson to end discriminatory hiring practices in government. In early 2021, Portland Public Schools renamed Woodrow Wilson High School to Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School in her honor.