African American Studies Ida B. Wells
James Edward Ford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0040


Ida B. Wells-Barnett (b. 16 July 1862–d. 25 March 1931) is most well known for her anti-lynching activism. Wells-Barnett’s heroism in confronting lynching, its participants, and apologists cannot be overstated. To assess the magnitude of Wells-Barnett’s impact, one must understand that, for her, lynching serves as a broad label for a range of physical violence targeting people based on their racial, gender, and class status. Though the noose has served as a dreaded symbol for lynching since the 1890s, that symbol might be mistaken for a narrow reference to vigilante violence from those on society’s fringe. But it would be a fundamental misunderstanding of Wells-Barnett’s protest to think so myopically. Wells-Barnett found lynching so disturbing because it indicated collusion between violent wrongdoers and the nation’s central economic, political, and juridical institutions. That said, striving to know what Wells-Barnett fought against must be combined with understanding how she fought and why she fought. In terms of how she fought, Wells-Barnett proved to be a compelling editor, journalist, orator, and debater. She also proved to be a skilled organizer, acknowledging that self-assertion among the African American populace required education, economic empowerment, and armed resistance. In terms of why she fought, Wells-Barnett esteemed the progress African Americans were making in the decades immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation. She saw new educational, professional, and political opportunities for women and, in particular, women of color at the turn of the 20th century. Furthermore, with the end of chattel slavery, Wells-Barnett believed that, for the first time in its history, the United States had the chance to live up to its promises of being a civilized country governed by the rule of law, and that all Americans, even those who had recently asserted their citizenship, had the right to push the country in the right direction. This article is oriented toward understanding Wells-Barnett as an advocate for black self-determination, as a feminist, and as an agent of radical change to the US polity.

Primary Sources

These are the canonical works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett that have received the most scholarly attention. Wells-Barnett 2014a (cited under Pamphlets), edited by scholar Mia Bay, is now the standard collection of Wells-Barnett’s writings across several genres, including pamphlets, newspaper articles, and editorial work. While a number of African American intellectuals divided their publications between creative writing and essays, Wells-Barnett begin her writing career as a journalist and soon transitioned into the role of editor. Indeed, Ida B Wells-Barnett was one of the first black American women to be an equal partner in an editorial team for a leading regional newspaper, namely, the Memphis Free Speech. Unfortunately, no extant copies of the Free Speech have been found. In this capacity, she contributed to important sociopolitical debates. In addition, she helped shape the direction of those debates and she offered alternative viewpoints that other media of the day would not countenance. Wells-Barnett brought her experience with editing and journalistic prose to bear on racial violence and a range of other issues occurring in the first few decades immediately after Reconstruction’s collapse until the end of her life at the start of the Great Depression. Her activism led her across the country (including Mississippi, Tennessee, New York, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Illinois) and to Europe. Although her writings were always site-specific, pertaining to specific crises and the concrete ways of addressing them, Wells-Barnett never lost sight of the fact that her causes had global significance and spoke to modernity’s fundamental concerns. Doing this work compelled her to take up several writing genres, including journalistic articles, editorials, letters to the editor, Pamphlets, and Autobiographies.

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