Ida B. Wells was a journalist, lecturer, civil rights leader, and the leading activist against lynching during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Lynching” refers to an instance when a person or group of people acting outside the law physically punishes another person, often resulting in death. During Reconstruction and after, instances of lynching in the US rose dramatically as Southern white communities targeted, threatened, and killed African Americans, often with little or no justification, in an attempt to maintain social, economic, and political power.
Ida B. Wells was born in rural Mississippi in the midst of the Civil War. As a young adult, Wells moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she became a teacher and soon took a stand against Jim Crow segregation. In 1889, Wells became co-owner and editor of The Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, which she used to speak out against racial injustice. When three of her friends were lynched in retribution for their economic success and a mob of white residents destroyed the office of her newspaper, Wells was forced to leave Memphis, but she continued her anti-lynching activism as a writer, journalist, and lecturer.
Ida B. Wells was also involved in women’s rights activism, specifically focusing on African American women, and was among the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. She married racial justice activist and lawyer Ferdinand Barnett in 1895 and settled in Chicago, where she became one of the leading members of the Chicago black community and worked on another newspaper, The Conservator. Ida B. Wells-Barnett stepped back from public engagements and travel while she raised her four children, but remained committed to racial justice and ran for Illinois state senator in 1930, though she did not win. The documents and images in this primary source set follow the development of Ida B. Wells’ career as a journalist and activist and also represent the practice of lynching that she dedicated her career to fighting against.
Additional resources for research
- Finding aid and digitized images for the Ida B. Wells Papers, University of Chicago.
- Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases full text, Project Gutenberg.
- “A lynching survivor returns,” an interview with Mamie Lang, who was present for John Hartfield murder, Equal Justice Initiative.
- “Justice Deferred: Albion Tourgee and the Fight for Civil Rights,” Chautauqua County Historical Society.
- “The Root: How Racism Tainted Women’s Suffrage,” NPR.
- Map of 73 Years of Lynchings, The New York Times.