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The Brave Soul of Ida B Wells-Barnett

Mar 17, 2008
Many Americans have never heard of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an African American leader in the early fight for civil rights. Even in 2005, when the Senate voted to publicly apologize for not passing legislation making lynching illegal, many people still did not think of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. In the years between 1889 and 1918, over 2,500 African-Americans were tortured and murdered. They may have committed a serious crime, such as rape or murder, but these cases were seldom backed with evidence. They may have done nothing more than argue with a White person or attempt to vote. Wells-Barnett exposed the evil secret of lynching, and for that, she is a heroine.

Wells-Barnett was born into slavery in 1862. Growing up in Holly Springs, Mississippi, she overcame a number of challenges. Her parents and youngest brother died when she was 14 of yellow fever. Other family members, meaning well, suggested that the rest of the children be split up, and sent to live with aunts and uncles. Wells-Barnett would not hear of it. She not only took care of her siblings, she worked her way through college and became a teacher, graduating from Rust College in Holly Springs, MI.

Under the pseudonym "Iola," she became an owner and editor of an anti-segregationist newspaper, "The Free Speech," in Memphis. The newspaper became her weapon for justice in 1892 when Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, were lynched. Wells-Barnett was forced to leave Memphis, her editorials inspiring some to threaten her life. Many also ran, but others stayed on and boycotted White businesses.

Wells-Barnett continued on, showing that most charges of rape against Black men were false, and distributing pamphlets that influenced many people, White and Black. She moved many times, including to England, to stay ahead of her enemies. She continued her fight until she died of uremia, in 1931. By then, she was a co-founder of the NAACP, had been a political candidate, and had influenced some of the most prominent figures of her time, including Susan B. Anthony and W.E.B. DuBois.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett transitioned from being a slave to one of the most important Civil Rights activists in the United States, and a key figure in the history of America. In June, 2005, Wells-Barnett saw the culmination of her work when the the United States issued a formal apology to the victims of lynching victims and their descendants for having failed to step in and stop these atrocities.
About the Author
Ian Spellfield explores the most frequently used African American names through the lens of history in his blog, Black Ghetto Baby Names.
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