Ida B. Wells

Born: 16 July, 1862 – Holly Springs, Mississippi

Died: 25 March, 1931 – Chicago, Illinois.

Born enslaved, but freed under the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.  Her parents both died of Yellow Fever when she was 16.  Ida supported the rest of her family by working, and eventually moved her siblings to Memphis when she took up a teaching post there. Enraged by the on-going racism she experienced, she set up the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper where she published reports of lynching, racial segregation and inequality.

She married attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett in Chicago in 1895.  They had four children, plus two sons from Ferdinand’s previous marriage.

Before her marriage, Ida had made two speaking tours of Britain: in 1893 and 1894.  The tour of 1893 at the invitation of Quaker women, including Catherine Impey.  The talks were based on Ida’s anti-lynching campaigns, with retellings of stories she had published in Southern Horrors.  Her talks were supported with photographs of actual lynchings.  As a direct result of Ida’s tours, the London Anti-Lynching Committee was formed in 1894.  Her passionate speeches were reported in local and national newspapers.  When in England, she met Celestine Edwards, who was visting Sunderland at the time.  Although she is not recorded as speaking in Sunderland, she spoke many times in Newcastle.  She took over as editor of Edwards’ magazine Fraternity when ill-health put a stop to his involvement in 1894.

A report from the Newcastle Daily Chronicle of 21 April, 1894 gives an idea of the powerful testimonies Ida delivered regularly:



[…] I have come from the town of Memphis, Tennessee.  My parents were slaves, and I have born in the State of Mississippi before the close of the war. I served seven years as teacher in the public schools at Memphis, and in the last two years of that time I became editor and part owner of a newspaper called ‘Free Speech’, a weekly paper circulating among my own people, especially to endeavour to alleviate the condition of the masses.  That paper stopped owing to its having protested against the lynching of negroes at Memphis, in March 1892 – three young men, personal friends of my own.  They had fired on white men, their rivals in business, in defending themselves in the course of a quarrel which had arisen about trade matters.  A mod of a dozen men went to the gaol, took these men to an old field, and shot them to death.   There was no charge made against them; it was currently said among the white people of the town that the negroes of the town were getting “too impudent”, and that they had to make an examples of these three, and teach the coloured men that they were not to fire on white men no matter what the provocation.  After that I began to investigate the lynchings about which I had read in the newspapers, and I discovered that not one third of the thousand black men and women who had been lynched in the previous ten years in the Southern States had been even charged with the assaults on white women.  The press and the pulpit of the South had been saying that the was the only reason for lynching coloured men in the South […] A coloured woman was lynched in Jackson, Tennessee, one of the largest towns in the State, charged with having poisoned a white woman for whom she was cook. There was no proof that the woman did the deed, but the mob found a packet of rat poison in her room, and that was proof sufficient to them that a negro must have done it.  She was dragged out of the gaol, every stitch of clothing torn from her body, and hanged in the court house square in sight of everybody. The white woman’s husband has since died a raving maniac in an asylum, and his ravings have shown that he, and not the poor black cook, administered poison to his wife […]

We feel that unless the public sentiment of England, of the press and the pulpit of this country, can be exercised in trying to arouse the public feelings, to touch the pride and conscience of the American people, the case is almost a hopeless one.  The people of America are very sensitive to English public opinion, and, by holding meetings and passing resolutions here, and sending the resolutions to the leading newspapers and leading citizens in America, we hope to be able to arouse in them a feeling against these things which are allowed to exist.


Further readings relating to Ida B. Wells

Caroline Bressey. ‘Geographies of Early Anti-Racist Protest in Britain: Ida B. Wells’ 1983 Anti-Lynching Tour in Scotland’ in Afe Adogame and Andrew Lawerence (eds). Africa in Scotland, Scotland in Africa: Historical legacies and contemporary hybridities. (2014)