Black History Month: The Brave Journalist Ahead of Her Time

Ida B. Wells, 1920

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation stated that all slaves in seceded states “…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” marking President Abraham Lincoln as a hero. However, this declaration was more of a façade, because true freedom wouldn’t be achieved until the end of January 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified. But even while physical freedom was achieved, basic human rights were yet to come as lynching and murders of Black people would soon follow. Among the chaos a brave journalist would rise and fight against the injustice. Her name was Ida B. Wells. Born only a few months after the Emancipation Proclamation was declared on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, she received her education at Shaw University, which her father, James Wells, helped establish. Tragedy soon stuck the family. When Wells was 16, both of her parents and younger brother died of yellow fever. She forsake her education in exchange for a job as a teacher in a segregated school to provide for the rest of her siblings. During this time she wrote many articles for Black newspapers on race and politics in the South under the pen name “Lola”. Long before Rosa Parks, Wells refused to give up her seat on a train and even won $500 dollars in a lawsuit against the railroad. Her focus would shift to lynchings soon after she was fired from her job. Three African American men, friends of Wells’ who were charged for damaging a white owner’s store, were lynched and murdered before the trial. She soon investigated lynchings and other African American deaths, risking her life for the truth. Wells’ most famous work, “A Red Record,” published in 1893, was a deep study of America’s lynchings. She led an anti-lynching protest at the White House in 1898. Wells also co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the NAACP, but was later pushed away by her own organization as many feared her more radical ideas on justice. Wells also fought for women’s suffrage and clashed with white women of the movement. She died in Chicago, Illinois, at the age of 68, on March 25, 1931. Although she was ahead of her time, her determination of no compromise for justice made a huge impact on the civil rights movement.

— Maya Ross