Activist and writer Ida B. Wells-Barnett first became prominent in the 1890s because she brought international attention to the lynching of African Americans in the South. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. At the age of 16, she became primary caregiver to her six brothers and sisters, when both of her parents succumbed to yellow fever. After completing her studies Rust College near Holly Springs where her father had sat on the board of trustees before his death, Wells divided her time between caring for her siblings and teaching school. She moved to Memphis, Tennessee in the 1880s.
Wells first began protesting the treatment of black southerners when, on a train ride between Memphis and her job at a rural school, the conductor told her that she must move to the train’s smoking car. Wells refused, arguing that she had purchased a first-class ticket. The conductor and other passengers then tried to physically remove her from the train. Wells returned to Memphis, hired a lawyer, and sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. The court decided in her favor, awarding Wells $500. The railroad company appealed, and in 1887, the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the previous decision and ordered Wells to pay court fees. Using the pseudonym “Iola,” Wells began to write editorials in black newspapers that challenged Jim Crow laws in the South. She bought a share of a Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight, and used it to further the cause of African American civil rights.
After the lynching of three of her friends in 1892, Wells became one of the nation’s most vocal anti-lynching activists. Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart owned the People’s Grocery in Memphis, but their economic success angered the white owners of a store across the street. On March 9, a group of white men gathered to confront McDowell, Moss, and Stewart. During the ensuing scuffle, several of the white men received injuries, and authorities arrested the three black business owners. A white mob subsequently broke into the jail, captured McDowell, Moss, and Stewart, and lynched them.
Incensed by the murder of her friends, Wells launched an extensive investigation of lynching. In 1892, she published a pamphlet, “Southern Horrors,” which detailed her findings. Through her lectures and books such as A Red Record (1895), Wells countered the “rape myth” used by lynch mobs to justify the murder of African Americans. Through her research she found that lynch victims had challenged white authority or had successfully competed with whites in business or politics. As a result of her outspokenness, a mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and threatened to kill Wells. She fled Memphis determined to continue her campaign to raise awareness of southern lynching. Wells took her movement to England, and established the British Anti-Lynching Society in 1894. She returned to the U.S., settled in Chicago, Illinois where she married attorney and newspaper editor Ferdinand L. Barnett in 1895.
Wells-Barnett also worked to advance other political causes. She protested the exclusion of African Americans from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and three years later she helped launch the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). In 1909 Wells was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also actively campaigned for women’s suffrage.