Ida B. Wells: The Tale of a True Journalist

Ida B. Wells/ Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library/ Biography.com.

In this essay, I will sketch the biography of Wells’ life in terms of racial prejudice, highlighting her important publications within the context of her personal experiences. “The Princess of the Press,” Ida B. Wells used her voice and her pen to battle injustice. She was born on July 16, 1862 to James and Lizzie Wells, who were slaves in Holly Springs, Mississippi Holly Springs, Mississippi. After the Civil War, James “helped start Shaw University, a school for newly freed slaves (now Rust College),” so her parents pushed for her to be educated. Wells went to Rust College for part of her education, but yellow fever left her orphaned, and she assumed the role as her siblings’ guardian. Having to care for her siblings as if they were her own children, she “convinced a nearby country school administrator that she was 18, and landed a job as a teacher” before she and her siblings moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where their aunt would care for them. At a young age, Wells was able to see and understand problems and then address them.

“A Red Record. Tabulated statistics and alleged causes of lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894. By Miss Ida B. Wells”/ Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library/ VCU Social Welfare History Project.

From her first breath, Wells was faced with injustice and racial prejudices. In 1884, Wells headed to Nashville on a train, in which “the train crew forced her to move to the car for African Americans” even though she “had bought a first-class ticket” first-class ticket.” She would not be treated that way, and when she was “forcibly removed,” Wells “bit one of the crew members.” She saw a moment of success when she sued and won her case, but the Tennessee Supreme court decided to overturn the ruling made by the circuit case court. After facing this level of racial injustice, Wells chose the name “Iola” and started to write, and her writing led to her ownership of The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech, which were two newspapers that she continued to publish her work in. Wells wanted to “write about black people for black people, in a way that was accessible to those who, like her, were born the property of white owners and had much to defend.” Her attention turned to the horrendous lynchings in the South because of three men: Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart. The three men decided to open “a grocery store, which drew customers away from a white-owned store in the neighborhood,” and a “white store owner and his supporters” wanted revenge. The three men were protecting their store, and they were hauled off to jail with no trial when they “ended up shooting several white men,” who had attacked them. They were lynched, and Wells, who was friends with Moss and his child’s godmother, wrote their story, and she decided to start writing about lynchings.

 Wells, Ida B. Papers, [Box 8, Folder 8], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

The wrongful death of her friend shaped her work. The racial prejudice she and her friends faced opened the door for her investigative journalism throughout the South. Wells “set out on a reporting mission, crisscrossing the South over several months as she conducted eyewitness interviews and dug up records on dozens of similar cases.” She wanted to unveil the “stereotype that was often used to justify lynchings – that black men were rapists. Instead, she found that in two-thirds of mod murders, rape was never an accusation. And she often found evidence of what had actually been a consensual interracial relationship.” Wells wanted to expose these heinous crimes, and she compiled her research into Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, which was published in 1892 as a pamphlet after she published “a series of fiery editorials” in The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, which earned her the name “The Princess of the Press” “The Princess of the Press.” Wells said, “‘Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so,’” and she did. Publishing these “anti-lynching editorials…in The Free Speech,” Wells “was run out of the South – her newspaper ransacked, and her life threatened.” She wasn’t going to be stopped. She even “named the victims of racial violence and told their stories.” Even after being threatened, she refused to give up, and she went on in 1895 to write A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, in which she discussed the “‘rape myth’ used by lynch mobs to justify the murder of African Americans” and explained her discovery that “lynch victims had challenged white authority or had successfully competed with whites in business or politics” or politics.” She was procuring a sliver of justice for the victim by recording these abdominal crimes. Wells was fierce and brave, and her personal experiences led her on this journey to unmask the racial prejudice throughout the United States, especially the South.


Bibliographic Sources

First Edition

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “Southern horrors ” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1892. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/868f8db7-fa74-d451-e040-e00a180630a7.

Later Editions

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases

Wells-Barnett, Ida B., 1862-1931; Jacqueline Jones Royster Ed. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. Boston, MA, Bedford Books. 1997. https://archive.org/details/southernhorrorso0000well.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B, Jacqueline J. Royster, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. Boston, MA: Bedford Books, 1997. Internet resource.

“Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases, by Ida B. Wells-Barnett., 8 Feb. 2005, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14975/14975-h/14975-h.htm.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Southern Horrors Lynch Law in All Its Phases – the Original Classic Edition. Place of publication not identified: Emereo Pty Limited, 2012. Print.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Adansonia Publishing. June 6, 2018.

First Edition

A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “A red record. Tabulated statistics and alleged causes of lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894. Respectfully submitted to the nineteenth century civilization in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” By Miss Ida B. Wells [title page].” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1894. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-8dbd-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

Later Editions

A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States

Wells-Barnett, Ida B, and Frederick Douglass. A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 : Respectfully Submitted to the Nineteenth Century Civilization in “the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”. , 1895. Print.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894. Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1895. Internet resource.

Gunning, Sandra. Race, Rape, and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890-1912. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Internet resource.

Fields, Emilye H. Ida B. Wells’ a Red Record: A Social Justice Curriculum for Educating the Adult in Post-Reconstruction America. , 2003. Print.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. “The Red Record:” The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Red Record:, by Ida B. Wells-Barnett., 8 Feb. 2005, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14977/14977-h/14977-h.htm.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States. , 2015. Print.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. The Red Record. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. June 19, 2018.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B, and Frederick Douglass. The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. , 2018. Print.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States. , 2015. Print.

Archival Holdings

The University of Chicago holds of her original documents are housed in the archives. The archive is called the “Ida B. Well Papers 1884-1976,” and it includes “correspondence, manuscript of Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, diaries, copies of articles and speeches by Wells, articles and accounts about Wells, newspapers clippings, and photographs.”

Guide to the Ida B. Wells Papers 1884-1976https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/scrc/findingaids/view.php?eadid=ICU.SPCL.IBWELLS.


Works Cited

“Wells-Barnett, Ida B.” Social Welfare History Project, 13 Mar. 2018, socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/civil-war-reconstruction/wells-barnett-ida-b/.

Dickerson, Caitlin. “Ida B. Wells, Who Took on Racism in the Deep South With Powerful Reporting on Lynchings.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Mar. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/obituaries/overlooked-ida-b-wells.html.

Guide to the Ida B. Wells Papers 1884-1976https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/scrc/findingaids/view.php?eadid=ICU.SPCL.IBWELLS.

“Ida B. Wells.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 27 Feb. 2020, https://www.biography.com/activist/ida-b-wells.

“Ida B. Wells (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/people/idabwells.htm.

“Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases, by Ida B. Wells-Barnett., 8 Feb. 2005, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14975/14975-h/14975-h.htm.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. “The Red Record:” The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Red Record:, by Ida B. Wells-Barnett., 8 Feb. 2005, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14977/14977-h/14977-h.htm.

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