Ida B. Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931) was an African-American activist, journalist, teacher, newspaper editor, a popular public speaker and sociologist. Wells-Barnett was an early civil rights leader and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862, Wells-Barnett became primary care-giver at age 16 to her younger siblings after she lost her parents in 1878 from yellow fever. Completing her teacher training she moved her family to Memphis, Tennessee where the pay for teachers was slightly better.
An early civil rights campaigner, on a train trip in 1884 where she had paid for a first-class ticket, Wells-Barnett refused to give up her seat when a conductor demanded she move to the smoking car. She was forcibly removed to the smoking car by the conductor and some passengers. Wells-Barnett responded by suing the railroad and initially won her case. It was overturned later and she was ordered to pay court costs. “I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people…O God, is there no…justice in this land for us?”
The incident was her inspiration to begin writing articles highlighting injustice and civil rights. She was co-owner and editor of two papers in the 1890s, Free Speech and Headlight. Her writings eventually got her removed from her teaching post by the Memphis Board of Education.
In 1892 the lynching of two of her friends turned her into a vocal anti-lynching activist. Their murder set her on a path investigating and documenting lynchings, their causes and their outcomes. She published a number of high profile pamphlets and articles on lynching including her two most famous Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases in 1892 and her book The Red Record in 1895. Wells-Barnett’s investigations tackled the ‘Rape Myth’ the frequent alibi for lynchings was that they had sexually abused or attacked white women. Wells-Barnett showed that the majority of lynchings were actually for challenging white authority or competing with whites in business. Where as the rape alibi meant American’s were able to accept or keep silent about lynchings.
As Wells-Barnett said the accepted view was that “although lynching was…contrary to law and order…it was the terrible crime of rape [that] led to the lynching; [and] that perhaps…the mob was justified in taking his [the rapist’s] life”. Her studies went into the ways that lynching was a way of community control.
She married Attorney F.L Barnett in 1895 and had four children with him. Her activism continued throughout her life including being one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A skilled public speaker she travelled widely, including internationally, speaking on civil rights and women’s rights. In 1930 she decided to run for the Illinois State legislature, one of the first Black women to run for public office in the United States.