Ida B. Wells was a pioneering black journalist and an activist for women’s rights and the suffrage movement. She was also one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Miss. While working as a teacher in Memphis, she began writing a column for The Living Way, a weekly newspaper, under the pen name “Iola.” Her writings for the newspaper on race injustices earned her a national reputation. She later became editor and co-owner of the Free Speech and Headlight.
But Wells began her career as an investigative journalist after three friends were lynched by a white mob. The three men had opened a grocery store that competed with a white-owned shop in the city. Angered by the success of the black business, a group of white residents attacked the store. During the attack, three white men were shot and injured. The black grocers were arrested, but lynched by a mob before they could stand trial.
The death of her friends inspired Wells to begin documenting the widespread practice of lynching, particularly the lynching of black men, in the United States during the 1890s. Compiling statistics from white newspapers, she investigated the cause of each lynching and found that most of the murders had little to do with the sexual assault of white women.
Instead, she found black men and women were frequently lynched for failing to pay debts, for perceived disrespect of white people, for competing with white people economically and, at times, for consensual relationships with white people.
Wells incurred the wrath of white residents in Memphis when she wrote an editorial that suggested many of the justifications for lynchings – attacks on white women by black men – were actually consensual liaisons. An angry mob, egged on by two of the town’s leading white newspapers, destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight while Wells was away on a trip.
Wells later moved to Chicago and married Ferdinand Barnett, an attorney and editor of a black newspaper, the Chicago Conservator, the city’s first African-American newspaper. She continued to investigate lynching and toured Europe to raise awareness about the killings of black Americans.
Two of her best-known works are Southern Horrors published in 1892, and A Red Record, published in 1895. A third work, Mob Rule in New Orleans, told the story of Robert Charles, an African American whose death in July 1900 sparked the famous New Orleans race riots.