Ida B. Wells

            A Towering Historic Figure


Ida B. Wells




By Megan McKinney


Rosa Parks.

More than seven decades before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, Ida B. Wells did the same in a “Whites Only” train car in Tennessee. It took three men to eject her from her seat and one received a painful hand bite in the process. But this was merely the beginning of the fearless civil rights pioneer’s “Crusade for Justice,” as aptly described in the title of her autobiography.

Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, the year of Ida Bell Wells’ birth on a nearby farm.     

She was born enslaved on the Bolling farm near Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862. Her father, James Wells, was a carpenter and handyman and her mother, Elizabeth Warrenton Wells, the Bolling’s cook.

General Ulysses S. Grant .

Although we are close to a time when Holly Springs may be celebrated as the 1862 birthplace of Ida B. Wells, for a century and a half it has been known as the site of a General Ulysses. S. Grant supply base, which was destroyed in December of that year by Confederate General Earl Van Dorn, who also managed to capture supplies worth $1.5 million to be used against Union forces.

General Earl Van Dorn.

After winning freedom, James and Elizabeth Wells stayed in their jobs for wages until the next election. When James voted Republican, the party of Abraham Lincoln, the family was thrown off the farm and James opened a carpentry business in town.

Mid-1860’s Mississippi farmhouse similar to the Bolling’s.

Ida, and the seven Wells children who came after her, learned to read in school with their mother, who attended just long enough to be able to read the Bible. Ida read weekly newspapers aloud to her father, who remained illiterate but politically active and well respected in the community.

Nineteenth century school similar to that attended by the Wellses.

When her parents and a sibling were swept away in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, sixteen-year-old Ida was left to care for five surviving younger children.

To support her family, Ida taught grammar school in rural Mississippi and later in Memphis; she also began writing a column for a succession of Black weekly newspapers. Her pieces were distributed to other papers in a rudimentary form of syndication, giving Ida a wide following and the nickname “Princess of the Press.” After buying a one-third interest in the Free Press of Memphis and becoming its editor, Ida wrote a blistering editorial criticizing the city’s education of Black children.

City school of the era.

Suddenly she found herself a full time newspaper editor without the support of a teaching job. With her press pass and time to spare, she traveled free by train to towns in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi selling subscriptions and reporting on local events. In less than a year, she nearly tripled the circulation of the Free Press and boosted her earnings.

Meanwhile lynching had become endemic in the South. When three Black Memphis shopkeepers were murdered simply because customers were patronizing their grocery rather than that of a nearby white-owned store, Ida wrote editorials urging her Memphis readers to leave the city and move to Kansas or Oklahoma.

She promoted not only a mass exodus of Memphis Blacks but also the boycott of white businesses by those who stayed. Her editorials so infuriated whites that she had to keep a pistol in her desk for protection against possible violence. Finally, she further enraged white Memphis by printing an editorial stating that some “rapes” of white women by Black men were consensual and that romance was actually possible between people of different races. When the piece was printed–causing angry vandals break into her office, smash her printing press and destroy other property–she was fortunately in the East. Because there was now a price on her head and she knew her return could incite race riots, Ida would never go back to Memphis–or even travel in the South (although she did once many years later, incognito). She settled in New York and hired detectives from the Pinkerton Agency to investigate lynchings on her behalf; she then described them in articles in the influential New York Age (1887-1960) for which she was then writing. At the same time, she was also speaking against lynching to groups around the country.

Ida had become a national figure, and soon would be an international one. She accepted an invitation to visit Great Britain on a lecture tour, giving 50 talks in England and Scotland over a six-week period. Her impassioned speeches against lynching were calculated to rouse public opinion in an important cotton markets and bring economic pressure to the American South.


Upon her return to America she went out to Chicago to protest the lack of a Black presence at the Columbian Exposition. There she met Chicago lawyer Ferdinand Lee Barnett, a Northwestern University-educated widower with an avid interest in social justice.


Next in  Publisher Megan McKinney’s series on Ida B. Wells is Ida as Ida B. Wells-Barnett.


Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo by Robert F. Carl