American Literature Ida B. Wells
Jacqueline Royster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0127


Ida Bell Wells (b. 1862–d. 1931) gained prominence in the 19th century as a journalist and social activist. She began her professional career, however, as a teacher in the rural schools near Holly Springs, Mississippi, where she was born, and then in the Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee. In Memphis, she joined a lyceum, an intellectually vibrant group of African American professionals, and she became editor of the lyceum’s newspaper, the Evening Star. During this time period, racially oppressive Jim Crow practices were taking hold in the South, and Wells fell victim to its effects. She was forcibly evicted from the ladies’ car of the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad Company, and she refused to ride in the segregated smoking car. She won a lawsuit against the company in the circuit court, but lost in the Tennessee Supreme Court (1887). She wrote about the experience in another paper, the Living Way, in which she became a regular contributor, with articles syndicated in periodicals in other cities as well. By 1889 she was a co-owner and editor of The Free Speech, writing bold editorials related to freedom and justice for African Americans. Her editorials that protested educational inequities and that exposed an interracial affair of a school board member factored significantly in her being fired from the public schools. By 1891 she had become a full-time journalist and was building a reputation as an astute businesswoman, an insightful investigator, and a courageous advocate for civil and human rights. Her anti-lynching campaign began with an editorial, written on 21 May 1892, about the lynching of three friends who were store owners in Memphis. She called for an evidence-based recognition of lynching as a lawless act of injustice, economic oppression, and terrorism. This editorial catapulted her to fame as a crusading journalist, public speaker, and leading woman activist. The full scope of her leadership and activism included other reform interests as well (women’s suffrage, the Black Clubwomen’s movement, and the settlement house movement) and the cofounding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. After her 1895 marriage to Chicago-based lawyer and fellow journalist Ferdinand L. Barnett, Wells went into “limited retirement” but kept working for justice. Before her death in 1931, she saw that public awareness of her was disappearing and began writing her autobiography. It was left for her daughter, Alfreda M. Duster, to finish the work and get the work published, which happened in 1970.

General Overviews

Scholarship on Wells has evolved mainly from three focal points: (1) her recovery and reinscription as a notable woman; (2) her identification as a radical crusader for justice; (3) the ways and means of her visionary leadership and steadfast social activism. During her lifetime, Wells was included in some historical accounts, mainly by African Americans who sought to identify “notable” African American women in establishing the worthiness of African American peoples after centuries of enslavement and oppression. Examples include Majors 1986 (cited under Reference Works), originally published in 1893, which was intended to document the capacity of African American women to achieve in the arts and sciences; Mossell 1988 (also cited under Reference Works), originally published in 1894, written to celebrate the achievements of African American women in literature; and Penn 1988, originally published in 1891, which positions Wells as one among nineteen notable African American women journalists. Over the next decades, there was a lull in historical treatment of Wells until the resurgence of activism in the modern civil rights movement and the feminist movement during the mid-to-late 20th century, when her importance was once again recognized. Much of this scholarship recovered and reinscribed her life and accomplishments in annals of history and culture, including her autobiographical volume (Duster 1970, cited under Primary Texts) and several anthology projects (e.g., Loewenberg and Bogin 1976, cited under Anthologies) that began to make her writings and speeches more available. A related critical project has been analyzing her life, writing, and speeches within various ideological and interpretive frameworks in order to clarify the significance of her contributions. Each of the entries in this opening section exemplifies these general trends and offers a context for understanding Wells as a scholarly subject. Holt 1982 presents her as a militant and uncompromising leader and “lonely warrior,” explaining the burdens of passionate and radical leadership. Schechter 2001 connects Wells’s activism to multiple reform movements and casts light on the racialized and gendered conditions of leadership. Sims 2010 concentrates on her sense of personal identity and her use of an ethical framework to interrogate terrorism. Royster 2016 focuses on the linkages of Wells to the British anti-lynching and anti-imperialist movements. Such trajectories broaden and deepen the view of Wells, not just as a bold actor, but also as a radical thinker, a visionary leader, and an innovative strategist.

  • Holt, Thomas C. “The Lonely Warrior: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the Struggle for Black Leadership.” In Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Edited by John Hope Franklin and August Meier, 39–61. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

    Discusses Wells as a prominent turn-of-the-20th-century leader. Emphasizes the sociopolitical liabilities that accompany the leadership role when the leader is uncompromising in her ideals and beliefs, militant, and opposes another powerful and influential leader of the era—in this case, Booker T. Washington. Articulates a pattern of disappointments for Wells as an activist and leader. Does not direct specific attention to the gendered implications of this power struggle.

  • Penn, I. Garland. The Afro-American Press and Its Editors. Salem, NH: Ayer, 1988.

    A reprint of an 1891 volume by Garland (an educator, writer, and editor himself) before Wells wrote her catalytic editorial in Memphis. Argues for the notable and brave role that African American journalists were playing in the cause of freedom and justice, emphasizing the scope and influence of this work. Includes Wells as one of nineteen women contributors to the profession. Recognizes her as a “writer of superb ability.”

  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “Wells-Barnett, Ida B.” In America in the World, 1776 to the Present: A Supplement to the Dictionary of American History. Vol. 2, L–Z. Edited by Edward J. Blum. Farmington Hills, MI: Charles Scribner’s, 2016.

    Discusses Wells’s two British speaking tours (1893 and 1894) and her collaboration with Frederick Douglass, I. Garland Penn, Ferdinand L. Barnett, and Albion W. Tourgée to produce Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was distributed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Examines these activities as part of a strategy to internationalize the anti-lynching campaign and place lynching more boldly on the American agenda.

  • Schechter, Patricia A. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880–1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

    Offers a historical context for the sociopolitical ideas and actions of Wells, casting light not only on her anti-lynching campaign, but also on her involvement in other reform movements, including civil rights, women’s suffrage, and community development. Makes a case for what it means to foment social change as an African American woman under the complex racialized and gendered conditions and restraints of American life in the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Sims, Angela D. Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B. Wells’s Interrogation of American Terror. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230106208

    Explores the formation of ethical identity for Wells and the ethical implications of her anti-lynching campaign. Argues that Wells’s campaign remains instructive in terms of her analysis of lynching as a tool for regulating behavior and her use of rhetoric and activism to shape public opinion and reduce impediments to justice.

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