The Home of the Brave
By Gabriel Blanchard
For boldness, energy, and devotion to principle, Ida B. Wells can rival almost anyone on the Author Bank.
Among the pioneering scientists, venerable historians, and scholarly divines of the CLT Author Bank, it may feel odd to come abruptly upon the name of a journalist; the newspaper is not typically considered high literature. But a little reflection will dispel our half-conscious snobbery. Like the letters, decrees, and diaries of earlier periods, journalism provides some of the most important “raw material” for future historians to analyze, besides its role in the present. Wells is one of several journalists on the Bank—though remembered for his theological books and detective fiction as well, G. K. Chesterton first gained fame as a journalist and essayist, and one of Hannah Arendt‘s best-known books, Eichmann in Jerusalem, is precisely a report on the war criminal’s trial.
Born in 1862 (this July 16 will be her 160th birthday) and passing in 1931, Wells had the dubious fortune of living in interesting times. Her parents had been enslaved to a Mississippi architect, and she was born during the Civil War, less than a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. Her parents had seven more children, and her father was a successful carpenter and activist during Reconstruction. But in 1878, tragedy struck: an epidemic of yellow fever broke out, from New Orleans all the way up the Mississippi River to St. Louis. Usually, yellow fever is similar to the flu in both severity and period; but, in about a seventh of cases, it progresses to a second, far deadlier stage, characterized by (among other things) the jaundice that gives yellow fever its name. And the Wells family were not lucky. Ida, who was away from home at the time, lost one of her siblings and both her parents to the disease. She took work as a teacher for a few years to support her surviving siblings, before moving across the Tennessee border to Memphis, where her own career as an activist began.
The program of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War had, at first, seemed like a qualified success. The rebel states had been reincorporated into the Union, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments had been passed, ensuring not only the end of chattel slavery but equal rights as citizens for all Black Americans—on paper. But of course, winning wars does not necessarily mean winning minds; many people resented these new freedoms bitterly, and worked to oppose them through both legal loopholes and illegal intimidation. Reconstruction had ended by a negotiated compromise over the election of 1876, and with it, real enforcement of the pertinent Amendments ceased; segregation laws were introduced throughout the South, many states introduced new constitutions that disfranchised the Black populace, and the menace of racist violence became a commonplace (typified by the infamous Ku Klux Klan, but involving a far larger segment of “respectable” society).
At first, Wells’ forays into activism were relatively limited in scope, perhaps due to her continuing work as a schoolteacher. She wrote for some local papers, criticizing Jim Crow laws, and eventually became a co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a paper founded by a Black Baptist minister. Her criticisms were not well-received: in 1891, she was fired from her teaching position, and the following year, the paper’s offices were ransacked and destroyed by a mob. This came only a few months after three prosperous Black men had been lynched in the dead of night. She had responded to the crime in the Headlight, “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by White persons.” Wells herself was visiting friends in New York when the Headlight was attacked, and was warned by friends via telegram not to return.
But this did not hinder her investigation into lynchings. In 1892, she published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases. Accompanied three years later by The Red Record, which expanded on its predecessor, she here detailed not only the nightmare of the lynchings themselves, but the transparently false excuses put forward to justify them by the perpetrators—among other things, accusations of murder or rape had proven convenient for White businessmen to bring against Black competitors. She also discussed the realities of Jim Crow laws, designed to look neutral while achieving the purpose of preventing Black people from voting, or even from being able to register, rendering the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments a dead letter. To back up her claims, Wells included extensive documentation drawn largely from White sources, making it exceedingly difficult for opponents to contradict her about matter of fact; it is telling that on her return from two highly successful speaking tours in Great Britain, the critiques written of her consisted principally in name-calling and racial slurs.
Still more than Wells’ compelling prose, her utter refusal to be intimidated, even at the manifest risk of her own safety, impressed audiences in the North and rallied the spirits of the American Black community. (For that matter, her equally resolute championing of women’s suffrage annoyed several Black leaders, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who preferred to ignore the issue!) She did not live to see the great goal she dreamed of—that is, the formal criminalization of lynching—but it did happen, thanks in no small part to her persistence, eloquence, and courage.
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like some of our other profiles of the great authors of history, like Geoffrey Chaucer and George Eliot, or this essay on the marks of a classic book. And be sure not to miss out on our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate.
Published on 20th June, 2022.