By Marion Kirkpatrick
Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse to give up her seat. Seventy-one years before Parks’ demonstration, Ida B. Wells-Barnett battled Jim Crow on a train headed toward Chattanooga.
Improving the place of African Americans and women in society consumed the majority of Wells-Barnett’s life. She focused her efforts on action and change, rather than the mollification of her peers. This is evident in the personal letter exchanged with fellow African-American journalist, T. Thomas Fortune:
“We cannot and should not wait for the support of the masses before we begin the work but trust to the inherent drawing power of the eternal principles of right…and must depend for success upon the earnest zeal and hard work to spread the truth or our cause and insure its success” (“The Jim Crow Car,” 2).
Wells-Barnett is most well known for her work in investigative journalism, revealing the horrific practice of lynching in the South. However, through both her private life and highly publicized career, she greatly contributed to the advancement of African American women in the United States during her lifetime.
After her parents tragically died from a yellow fever outbreak, Wells-Barnett provided for and protected her family. Upon migrating to Memphis, she found unprecedented success as a woman in journalism; she focused on anti-lynching and the plight of Southern blacks, which quickly caused her to attain a great deal of negative attention from the bigoted white press. On the outside, Wells-Barnett put up a confident face, but according to her personal diaries, she struggled with a great deal of fear and anger because of her white persecutors, as well as a sense of rejection and otherness in relation to the black community because she chose her career instead of marriage. She remained unmarried until late in her youth (Schechter, 52).
After fleeing Memphis in fear of her life, Wells-Barnett moved to Chicago and soon married Ferdinand L. Barnett, where she continued living life as a revolutionary woman. Wells-Barnett was one of the first American women in history to adopt a combination last name, her maiden name followed by her husband’s last name, after marriage—a common practice today (“Miss Ida B. Wells About to Marry,” 3). After having children, Wells-Barnett also attempted to balance her family life with her flourishing career, which is a common struggle amongst most working women in the 21st century.
Considered the most influential female African American voice of the early Civil Rights era, Wells-Barnett fought tirelessly for the advancement and empowerment of her race and gender. Her advocacy journalism focused on the equality of black women in relation to both black males and white women. In Memphis, she wrote a great deal of articles on the subject. For instance, in “Our Women,” she asserts that one of the most harmful claims against the Negro races is the “wholesale contemptuous defamation their women. […] the taunt of immorality” (Wells-Barnett, DeCosta-Willis, 185).
In her writing, just like her life, Wells-Barnett was not afraid to challenge the status quo. Considered “eloquent, logical, and dead in earnest” by her peers, she wrote and lectured about passionately controversial issues, such as the discriminatory assumption of black men as racists, the gruesome and descriptive lynching of innocent African Americans, and the blatant bigotry that still existed in a post-Civil War South. She secured her place as a respected orator, journalist and activist in the US and Europe and became an inspiring and influential voice for prominent African American women then and now (Fortune, 2).
Outside of her writing, Wells-Barnett joined with other influential voices of the early Civil Rights Movement to create important organizations, such as the National Association for Colored Women (NACW), the Alpha Suffrage Club and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), some of which still are active in shaping governmental policy today.
Unfortunately, due to Wells-Barnett’s dynamic and radical beliefs for her time, she suffered a great deal of unfair defamation from white women – feuding with Francis E. Willard, president and champion of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement on an international stage for over a decade—who expounded ideas of contrived “American womanhood” as well as racist myths against black men as both a “‘humiliating’” argument for their suffrage and as a way to “preserve ‘white supremacy’” (“Her Reply…Others,” 1; qtd. in Olsen; Parker, 57-58). Not only this, she also faced a great deal of criticism and rejection from her own race—especially the men she fought alongside. According to her autobiography, a jealous and competitive W. E. B. DuBois unfairly excluded her from the NAACP’s original founders list. Yet, she endured all of these obstacles with immense courage. Without both Wells-Barnett’s boldness in creating change, the fate of millions of American women would be very different today.
Fortune, T. Thomas. “Personal and Pertinent. Notes upon the League Convention—The Infamy of the ‘Jim Crew’ Car.” New York Age [New York, NY]. 25 July 1891.
Olsen, Tod. “Ida B. Wells: Civil Rights Activist.” Junior Scholastic. Web. 5 Nov 2013.
Parker, Maegan. “Desiring Citizenship: A Rhetorical Analysis Of The Wells/Willard Controversy.” Women’s Studies in Communication 31.1 (2008): 56-78. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Nov. 3013.
Schechter, Patricia A. “All The Intensity Of My Nature”: Ida B. Wells, Anger, and Politics.” Radical History Review 70 (1998): 48. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. “The Jim Crow Car.” New York Age [New York, NY]. 8 Aug. 1891: All. America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
—. “‘Ida B. Wells. Her Reply to Gov. Northern and Others.’ in ‘Cleveland Gazette 14 July 1894.’” Cleveland Gazette. 14 July1894. Digital Projects. Northern Illinois U, 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
— and Miriam DeCosta-Willis. “Our Women.” The Memphis Dairies of Ida B. Wells: 158. Boston: Beacon, 1995. Google Books. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.