In March of 1892, three Black grocery store owners in Memphis, Tennessee, were murdered by a mob of white men. Lynchings like these were happening all over the American South, often without any subsequent legal investigation or consequences for the murderers. But this time, a young journalist and friend of the victims set out to expose the truth about these killings. Her reports would shock the nation and launch her career as an investigative journalist, civic leader, and civil rights advocate. Her name was Ida B. Wells.
Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862, several months before the Emancipation Proclamation released her and her family. After losing both parents and a brother to yellow fever at the age of 16, she supported her five remaining siblings by working as a schoolteacher in Memphis, Tennessee.
During this time, she began working as a journalist. Writing under the pen name “Iola,” by the early 1890s she gained a reputation as a clear voice against racial injustice and become co-owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper. She had no shortage of material: in the decades following the Civil War, Southern whites attempted to reassert their power by committing crimes against Black people including suppressing their votes, vandalizing their businesses, and even murdering them.
After the murder of her friends, Wells launched an investigation into lynching. She analyzed specific cases through newspaper reports and police records, and interviewed people who had lost friends and family to lynch mobs. She risked her life to get this information. As a Black person investigating racially motivated murders, she enraged many of the same southern white men involved in lynchings.
Her bravery paid off. Most whites had claimed and subsequently reported that lynchings were responses to criminal acts by Black people. But that was not usually the case. Through her research, Wells showed that these murders were actually a deliberate, brutal tactic to control or punish black people who competed with whites. Her friends, for example, had been lynched when their grocery store became popular enough to divert business from a white competitor.
Wells published her findings in 1892. In response, a white mob destroyed her newspaper presses. She was out of town when they struck, but they threatened to kill her if she ever returned to Memphis. So she traveled to New York, where that same year she re-published her research in a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In 1895, after settling in Chicago, she built on Southern Horrors in a longer piece called The Red Record. Her careful documentation of the horrors of lynching and impassioned public speeches drew international attention.
Wells used her newfound fame to amplify her message. She traveled to Europe, where she rallied European outrage against racial violence in the American South in hopes that the US government and public would follow their example. Back in the US, she didn’t hesitate to confront powerful organizations, fighting the segregationist policies of the YMCA and leading a delegation to the White House to protest discriminatory workplace practices.
She did all this while disenfranchised herself. Women didn’t win the right to vote until Wells was in her late 50s. And even then, the vote was primarily extended to white women only. Wells was a key player in the battle for voting inclusion, starting a Black women’s suffrage organization in Chicago. But in spite of her deep commitment to women’s rights, she clashed with white leaders of the movement. During a march for women’s suffrage in Washington D.C., she ignored the organizers’ attempt to placate Southern bigotry by placing Black women in the back, and marched up front alongside the white women.
She also chafed with other civil rights leaders, who saw her as a dangerous radical. She insisted on airing, in full detail, the atrocities taking place in the South, while others thought doing so would be counterproductive to negotiations with white politicians. Although she participated in the founding of the NAACP, she was soon sidelined from the organization.
Wells’ unwillingness to compromise any aspect of her vision of justice shined a light on the weak points of the various rights movements, and ultimately made them stronger— but also made it difficult for her to find a place within them. She was ahead of her time, waging a tireless struggle for equality and justice decades before many had even begun to imagine it possible.