Ida Bell Wells was born a slave in Mississippi six months before the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted in 1863. Orphaned at age 16 after a yellow fever epidemic claimed her parents and some siblings, the eldest Wells took a teaching job to help support her remaining brothers and sisters. She soon moved to Memphis, Tenn. and attended summer classes at Fisk University while teaching at a black school full time. She also began writing against racial injustice as part-owner of the “Free Speech and Headlight”, more motivated after she was forcibly removed from a train car despite having a first-class ticket in 1884.
In 1892 her friend Thomas Moss and two other black men opened a Memphis grocery store that competed with a white-owned grocery nearby. A mob attacked Moss’s store and during the scuffle three white men were shot and injured, and the three black store owners were jailed. While Wells was out of town, a large white mob stormed the jail, dragged out the prisoners and murdered them. This vigilante justice enraged Wells and her fervent investigative journalism ensued nationwide. She penned a blistering pamphlet titled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases”, that detailed this illegal practice that became more notorious after Reconstruction.
She encouraged blacks to flee Memphis if the city would not protect them, resulting in an exodus of six thousand people. She left Memphis herself and moved to Chicago where she continued her campaign.
Wells was propelled into a new role in U.S. Civil Rights history. She was enlivened, and knew these injustices needed to be exposed to the American public in a new and plainspoken manner. She traveled to London for a controversial speech in 1894 and relayed her findings after examining mob justice throughout the nation. She stated that she was there to “tell the black people’s side of the story.” In 1895 she published “A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the U.S.” An alleged lynching in Quincy, Illinois was briefly documented in it. Newspaper accounts give confusing details of W. J. Jamison’s hanging. Jamison was in jail for sixteen months before being executed. He claimed to be a half Cherokee doctor who killed a Quincy man in self-defense. His lawyer tried to use insanity as a defense.
That same year she married Ferdinand Lee Barnett in Chicago, who later became the state’s first black assistant state’s attorney. Henceforth she was known as Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Historically she is commonly referred to as Ida B. Wells.
Frederick Douglass was so impressed with these investigations that he wrote Wells directly: “There has been no word equal to in convincing power. I have spoken but my word is feeble in comparison. You have dealt with the facts with cool, pain-staking fidelity and left those naked and uncontradicted facts speak for themselves.”
“Brave woman! You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured…..It sometimes seems we are deserted by earth and Heaven yet we must still think, speak, and work, and trust in the power of a merciful God for final deliverance.”
Her controversial reputation was confirmed when she was invited to Quincy soon after, along with Major John C. Buckner of Chicago. A rally was planned for the courthouse yard on the square, but cool weather forced the day to Turner Hall at 936 Hampshire on Oct. 13, 1896. Quincyan Rhoda Johnson, a Lincoln school teacher and member of The Tabernacle of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, introduced the headstrong orator, and Wells addressed the crowd with her usual straightforwardness. She encouraged voters to register and support the Republican candidates, and explained the gold standard in relation to the U.S. economy. The Quincy Daily Whig reported that “she speaks quietly and easily, but with a deal of latent force, which at times breaks forth in passionate eloquence, and one can easily understand why she created such a furor in England.”
Later that day both speakers were at Highland Park at 20th and Cedar Streets, and Wells addressed the congregation at the 8th and Elm Street Baptist Church that night at 7:30.
She continued speaking and writing and in 1898 Wells joined a delegation to Washington D.C. that presented a set of resolutions to President McKinley that lobbied for justice among the lynching perpetrators.
Soon after on Aug. 1, 1900 Wells returned to Quincy for a grand fundraiser for the 8th and Elm Street Baptist Church (Missionary Baptist Church), to be held at Baldwin Park, 30th and Maine Streets. Thomas S. Baldwin was the proprietor and newly famous aeronaut who lived there with his wife Carrie. The park had a clubhouse, racetrack, saloon, and theatre, amenities befit for a festival. The Quincy Whig promoted the event two weeks before with the headline, “This BBQ Will Be a Whopper – Colored People Coming to Quincy by the Thousands.” Envoys from Keokuk, Iowa and Hannibal, Kirksville, Edina, and Memphis, Missouri trekked to Quincy for the event.
Wells gave the oration. The day was a grand festival of food, speech and fun. A mammoth pit was dug below ground to roast pork, mutton, beef, and chickens for the crowd. There was over $100 awarded in prizes, and competitive athletic events, including baseball, foot races, bicycle races, and a balloon ascension by aeronaut Renfroe. There was also a reunion of the 8th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, and the 10 cents admission helped the church’s fundraising goal of $1000.
Colonel John R. Marshall, a commander of the 8th Illinois Regiment of black volunteers sent to Cuba in 1895 during the Spanish-American War, was also an honored guest
A quote by Wells sums up her crusade: “The only way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Quincy Daily Journal, Oct. 19, 1896; June 7, 1897; June 10, 1895; March 21, 1898; March 2, 1923.
Quincy Daily Whig, March 22, 1898; Oct. 14, 1896; July 12, 1900.
Quincy Daily Herald, July 12, 1900.
Fradin, Dennis Brindell, and Judith Bloom Fradin. Ida B. Wells: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. Clarion Books, 2000.
Silkey, Sarah L. Black Woman Reformer: Ida B. Wells, Lynching, and Transatlantic Activism. University of Georgia Press, 2015. (www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt175754m)
Wells-Barnett, Ida B., 1862-1931. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B., 1862-1931. The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. Cirencester England: Echo Library/Paperbackshop Ltd, 2005.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B., 1862-1931. Crusade For Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.