Ida’s Legacy

Ida’s Legacyimages

By Dylan Wilkes

     “Ida B. Wells is a woman who changed my life. Reading all these things and learning what this woman [has] done, made me feel very passionate about what I do. It made me want to not just keep this for myself, but to share this, for our young people, for today and for generations to come.” Leona Harris, curator of the Wells-Barnett Museum, spoke these powerful words in a 2003 article of the Chicago Tribune[1]. This quote, as well as others, expresses just how powerful and widespread the legacy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett truly is. She is known for her fight for civil rights, her stance for women’s rights and her contribution to the journalistic world.

     Ida B. Wells- Barnett lived in the era of Jim Crow. She had an encounter with the Jim Crow laws when she was forced to move from the parlor car to the smoking car of a train. Wells-Barnett sued the railroad company, and on a local level, she won. When three of her friends were lynched, she became even more determined to renew her fight against brutal racism. Wells became an anti-lynching crusader.[2] She was so determined that she embarked on a lecture circuit overseas condemning the lynching going on in the United States. This is an example of how bold she was because it not only empowered black people as race but black women as individuals. Wells left a huge impression on the lives of the people she came in contact with. As The Christian Recorder observed, “We regret we have not a hundred more Ida B. Wells to proclaim and defend the truth.”[3]

Her battle for civil rights was not limited to race; she also fought for women’s rights. In 1913, after establishing the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, she decided to participate in the Woman Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. Although Wells-Barnett was asked to march at the back of the parade because of the color of her skin, she ignored the orders of women’s rights leaders and marched with the Illinois delegation. As she joined in, two other white women marched alongside her.[4] Although she was not accepted because of her color, she did not back down from fighting for women’s rights. The efforts of Wells-Barnett and her fellow suffragists came to pass when women were granted the right to vote in 1920.[5] She tested boundaries rather than conforming to the expectations of the men and women of her time.

With all this fight within her, Wells-Barnett was able to express herself through her writing as a journalist. She was a bold investigative and advocacy journalist, exposing racism and sexism and crusading against the nation’s brutal lynch law. She not only wrote bold articles, but she eventually became co-owner of the Free Speech newspaper. Although her co-ownership was short lived, that did not stop the journalistic drive inside of her. Wells-Barnett can be seen as a trendsetter of investigative or muckraking journalism. She investigated lynching cases as well as race riots. “Paula Giddings contended that the decline in lynching after 1892 can be attributed directly to her work.”[6]

People today are more than moved by what Ida B. Wells-Barnett did. They are truly inspired by her. Wells-Barnett was more than someone who spoke up for African American people and women. She sought equal rights for all individuals. Although she was not able to see what a huge impact she had on society, her legacy can be seen in the passage of laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in continued community reform efforts in Chicago, and in initiatives such as the Ida B. Wells Foundation, established by five of her grandchildren in 1988. Her ideals are perhaps best exemplified in her own words: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”[7] These words and ideals will continue to inspire future generations of Americans.

With contributions from Brandon Rupert.

[1] Hallman, Deborah. “Family, admirers keep Ida B. Wells’ legacy alive.”

[2] Folkerts, Jean. Voices of a Nation: A History of Mass Media in the United States.

[3] Nimar, WM. H. “Miss Ida B. Wells at Bethel Church…”

[4] Olsen, Tod. “Ida B. Wells: Civil Rights Activist”

[5] “Ida B. Wells: Civil Rights Activist”

[6] Voices of a Nation: A History of Mass Media in the United States.

[7] Cited in Patricia Ann Schecter, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 89.


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