Trailblazers: Ida B Wells

We’re coming to the end of Women’s History Month, and to round off my #Trailblazers series we’ll be exploring the legendary Ida B Wells.

Born into slavery, Ida B Wells (1862-1931) would become a powerful figure in the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements; a dynamic investigative journalist she shed light on the barbaric practice of lynching.

Ida B Wells
Ida B Wells c.1893 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Lynching was the practice of “putting a person to death by mob action without due process of law“, that was often used to subjugate minorities. This abhorrent practice was rife in the American south during Ida’s lifetime, and if you read accounts of these lynchings it makes for some incredibly tough reading. The victims of lynching were tortured in horrendous ways, like Henry Smith in 1893 who had his eyes burned out before being put to death. His lynching was celebrated by the mob with postcards of the event and even a gramophone recording of his screams. In short this practice was barbaric.

Cue: Ida B Wells. This formidable woman began investigating these lynchings after her friend Thomas Moss became a victim of one in 1892. The widely believed myth at this time was that those lynched were guilty of sexually assaulting white women. Ida’s investigations showed that this was not the case, and found that one of the most common causes of lynching was black people’s economic success. She published ‘Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases‘ which showed the world the truth. She later wrote another text ‘The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States‘ published in 1895 in which she wrote:

It is a well-established principle of law that every wrong has a remedy. Herein rests our respect for law. The Negro does not claim that all of the one thousand black men, women and children, who have been hanged, shot and burned alive during the past ten years, were innocent of the charges made against them. We have associated too long with the white man not to have copied his vices as well as his virtues. But we do insist that the punishment is not the same for both classes of criminals. In lynching, opportunity is not given the Negro to defend himself against the unsupported accusations of white men and women. The word of the accuser is held to be true and the excited bloodthirsty mob demands that the rule of law be reversed and instead of proving the accused to be guilty, the victim of their hate and revenge must prove himself innocent. No evidence he can offer will satisfy the mob; he is bound hand and foot and swung into eternity. Then to excuse its infamy, the mob almost invariably reports the monstrous falsehood that its victim made a full confession before he was hanged.”

As well as researching and writing, Ida got married to Ferdinaned Lee Barnett who was a lawyer and activist. They had four children together along with raising the 2 children from Ferdinand’s first marriage. Like the Curies who I wrote about a few weeks ago their relationship was a partnership and they supported each others careers, which was not very common during this time. So not only was Ida undertaking noble journalistic work, she raised a young family at the same time which would have been no easy feat.

Ida was a great speaker and undertook many speaking engagements both in America and abroad, to inform people of her research. The Morning Call San Francisco newspaper reported her visit to the Grace Methodist Church in 1895, where Ida “in a quiet but clear voice, with now and then an emotional effect, and holding in her hands a handkerchief that now and then she twisted as though under strong repression, the lecturer went rather further in details than some of her audience seemed to relish, for several left the church during the delivery, and when the lecture was concluded there was a feeling of relief manifested by many“. Ida’s fiery rhetoric was criticised by some within her own causes, but she was bold and never muted herself for other peoples comfort. She stood up for what she believed in and paved the way for future activists. Her trailblazing journalism put lynching at the forefront of the news.

Her perseverance in reporting resulted in many enemies. She had a newspaper called ‘Free Speech’ at one point and an angry mob burnt it down, threatening to lynch her leading her to leave Memphis for her safety. This did not deter her though, and she continued her activism forming many clubs like the ‘The Women’s Era Club’, until her death in 1931 at the age of 68 from kidney failure. Ida was passionate and proactive, it can’t have been easy looking into the many lynching horror stories and trying to get the world to listen, but listen it did.

What do you make of Ida B Wells? What do you think we can learn from her journalism? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Don’t want to miss out on any posts? Then you can sign up to the Some Sources Say mailing list here. You’ll get a History Drop in your email inbox once a month with my latest posts, with the odd bonus post in-between!


Ida B Wells:

Rejected Princesses: Ida B Wells:

Ida B Wells:

“Miss Wells on Southern Mobs,” The Morning Call (San Francisco, CA), March 4, 1895, Page 7, Image 7, col. 4:


The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States: