March is Women’s History Month

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) is one of the women named in our Seneca Falls Society categories.

She was born into slavery in Mississippi during the Civil War.  While supporting younger siblings, she studied at Rust College which was established for ex-slaves.  Ida began teaching in Memphis and at the same time writing in local news outlets for blacks.  She took the pen name, Iola, to avoid retaliation but because of her criticisms of the school system and segregated seating on the railroad the School Board chose not to renew her contract.  She then turned to journalism as a career even buying an interest in Memphis’ Free Speech and Highlight.  Wells led the charge against the loss of liberties that local blacks had under Reconstruction.  She established her primary reputation for writing against lynching.

She eventually was forced to leave town after she outraged whites by writing about white men raping black women not the other way around.  Wells continued her crusade against lynching while working for papers like the Chicago Conservator and the New York Age.  While in Chicago, she organized a black women’s club and retained the presidency of the Ida B. Wells Club for the rest of her life.

Wells embarked on a very successful lecture tour in England.  So effective a speaker was she that a well-funded British anti-lynching society was formed to influence American opinion by flooding Memphis newspapers with letters and threatening a boycott of cotton.

Though she had been involved in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People she became scornful of the slow accommodation approach accepted by these groups.  In 1930 Wells ran for State Senate but black women clearly chose not to support her and she was soundly defeated by the male candidate.  She died the following year, isolated and unpopular.  It wasn’t until the publication of her autobiography in 1970 that interest in her was revived.

Information from American Women’s History 1999 and originally written by former MWC staffer, Dede Wolfson


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