Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in the year of 1862, Ida B. Wells Barnett was one of seven children. Her mother worked as a cook and her father was a carpenter; together they worked to support their large family.
Fourteen years later, an epidemic of the deadly Yellow Fever plagued the town, and Ida lost her parents, as well as her youngest brother, to the disease. Ida, being brought up with two hard working parents, took the responsibility of supporting and raising the remaining family herself.
She found a job as a teacher. Later, she was able to attend college to finish her education.
Later, Ida moved herself and her younger sisters to Memphis, Tennessee. An aunt lived there who would help her raise her family. It was in Memphis that the teacher first took a stand against discrimination. Now, you’ve probably heard of the famed Afro-American named Rosa Parks (1913-2005). She refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in the year 1955.
Ida had a similar situation, many years earlier, on a train. The year was 1884. Ida was traveling on a train that was operated by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company. Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was in place, the railroad still insisted on segregating their passengers. Therefore, Ida was ordered to give up her seat and move to the crowded, stuffy smoking car. She flatly refused. The conductor then physically removed Ida from her seat. The scuffle resulted in Ida later suing the railroad for illegal discrimination. Ultimately, she lost her case in court. But the incident was only the beginning of Ida B. Wells Barnett’s life work. From that time on, she dedicated her life to being a Civil Rights activist.
Ida wrote of her experience, and her articles were published in many newspapers. In 1889, the popularity of her writings earned her a position at a newspaper called the Free Speech and Headlight.
Just three years later, another incident happened that would only serve to deepen Ida’s resolve to abolish racism. Three Afro-American men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, who happened to be friends of hers, ran a grocery store together. A mob of white men blamed the trio for taking valuable customers away from the white businesses. So, the mob viciously attacked the three men. A fight ensued, one of the white men was shot, and the Afro-American men were arrested and jailed. While they awaited trial, a lynch mob murdered them.
Ida was appalled at hearing of the murders, and she wrote an article about it for the newspaper. After the article was published, a mob of white men threatened to kill her if she didn’t leave town. Outnumbered, but not broken spiritually, the journalist moved to Chicago where she continued to write about the crimes against Afro-Americans that were taking place in her southern homeland. She also crusaded for women’s rights and started groups that called for the reform of the unjust laws. She helped to start the National Afro-American Council, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP). She headed the Anti-Lynching Bureau and was active in the Negro Women’s Club.
In 1895 Ida married a man named Ferdinand Lee Barnett. Barnett was the editor of an Afro-American newspaper and an attorney as well. Together, they published a newspaper called the Chicago Conservator. Their union also produced two sons and two daughters: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda.
After a lifetime of pursuing justice for Afro-Americans, as well as for women, Ida B. Wells Barnett passed away in Chicago on March 25, 1931; she was sixty-nine years old. She will long be remembered as being a staunch crusader for civil rights.