The Way to Right Wrongs: Celebrating the Legacy of Ida B. Wells

By NYPL Staff
July 16, 2018
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Written By: Jillian Peprah-Frimpong

Pre-Professional, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Student, New York City Museum School

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, journalist and civil rights activist. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. 

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” - Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth:Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader

Today we celebrate the birthday of Ida B. Wells, co-founder of the NAACP, journalist, educator and truth seeker, and the legacy she left behind within the Civil Rights movement. Known for her fiery and bold writing, Wells tackled issues regarding the political, social and economic standing of black people in America and through her writing, she shed light on the racial and social injustices faced by African-Americans during her time. Her most notable work was the investigative reporting done on the lynching of African-American men in the south during the 1890s.

Born to enslaved parents in 1862, Wells spent a majority of her childhood residing at the Bolling-Gatewood House in Mississippi, even after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Wells lived with her parents and seven other siblings. In 1878, her parents and siblings had become victims of a yellow fever epidemic and died in Holly Springs, Mississippi while she visited her grandmother in Memphis Valley. At 16, Wells had become orphaned along with 5 other siblings. To support and keep her family together, Wells taught at black elementary schools in Marshall and Tate County. Although she received a lower wage than her white counterparts, the discrimination she faced as a black school teacher peaked her interest in the discourse of race and politics. This experience would continue to influence her journalism and desire to work with other black activists and leaders to advocate for black communities.

Along with teaching, she attended Fisk University during the summer in Nashville and Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis. She was known for being a critical student and holding strong, radical back then, opinions towards women’s rights and racial injustice. Early into her career, Wells wrote various articles for local publications. In 1889, she became a columnist under the name “Iola” for the weekly newspaper The Living Way. Later on Wells would be fired from her teaching job for openly detesting the unfair treatment towards African-American students and teachers in segregated schools in her articles. Wells continued to write and became the editor and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight publications until it was destroyed by a white lynch mob.

Wells’ experience of the loss of her friends to hate crimes and racial violence influenced her to write about racial injustice in the south. With her journalism she enlightened the public on unlawful lynching of African-Americans and later on went to publish Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phasesin 1892, a research pamphlet which analyzed the true reasoning behind the surge of violence against African-Americans in the south. After her research Wells concluded that lynching was an act of retaliation towards black economic progress since rural whites were now in competition with African-Americans. Wells went on to tour England, Wales and Scotland during her anti-lynching campaign which ultimately led to the formation of the English Anti-Lynching Committee Later on, along with the help of Frederick Douglass, Wells organized a black boycott against the lack of African-American culture exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Wells’ spent the remainder of her life in Chicago rallying against injustices faced by people of color until her death in 1931. As of late, she was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2011 for her work. Investigative journalist and staff writer for the New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has revived the legacy of Wells through founding the Ida B. Wells Society For Investigative Reporting, a news organization for writers and journalists of color interested in the investigative field. The organization seeks to uncover history left behind. Wells’ legacy lives on in the hidden stories uncovered and brought to light by those who care.