The Honorable Agitator

Today’s post was written by Daniella Furman, archivist at the National Archives in College Park, MD

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was born into slavery on July 16, 1862, and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. She held a career as an educator and later a journalist chronicling the African American experience in the early 1800’s. Her work on documenting the lynching practices and horrors of the south attained a global audience despite being labeled as a race agitator in the United States.

Her career began as a schoolteacher and journalist but she quickly received backlash and censorship when she began to publish works regarding racial segregation and inequality. In 1884, Wells was dragged off a train for refusing to give up her seat and move to the smoking car. In 1884, she filed a lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southeastern Railroad for discrimination based on race. She sued the railroad company and eventually won the local case but when the railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court the decision was reversed and she was ordered to pay court costs.

Despite this Wells continued to write about racial injustices later becoming an editor. In 1892, she became the part-owner of the Black owned newspaper The Memphis Free Speech. Her writing sparked much criticism and anger in the south. Unfortunately because of this a white mob ransacked the Free Speech office, destroying the building and its contents.

Fleeing personal threats and violence Wells moved to New York to continue writing. In 1892, Wells began to publish her research on lynching in a pamphlet called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases. She then published The Red Record in 1895, which was a 100-page pamphlet also describing lynching in greater detail. She had the incredible opportunity to take her research and passion regarding the subject internationally, touring in Europe twice where she gave presentations raising awareness of the horrors of American lynching.

According to documents preserved and made available online by the National Archives, Ida B. Wells also used her writing to appeal to the highest levels of government to address racial injustice. In 1918, on behalf of the Negro Fellowship League, Wells wrote President Wilson calling out an order from a General in Kansas that restricted the movement of soldiers based on their color. She charged that the order “destroys all civil rights, causes fresh discriminations, fosters race prejudice, humiliates our race, and degrades the army uniform.”

the letter calls for Wilson to rescind an order that restricts soldiers from going to public places where they would not be welcomed b/c of their color
Letter from Ida B. Wells-Barnett to President Woodrow Wilson protesting General Ballou’s Bulletin Number 35 for the 92nd Division, Camp Funston, KS (NAID 7455575)

In her correspondence with Republican Senators Shelby Moore Cullom of Illinois, Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, and then President of the United States William B. McKinley, Ida B. Wells appeals for justice in the lynching of Postmaster Frazier B. Baker and his two-year-old daughter, Julia, in South Carolina, in 1898.

Despite all the criticism she received, even so far as to be labeled as a “race agitator” by the U.S. government, she was still very active in the African American National Woman’s Club Movement. In 1893, she organized The Women’s Era Club, a first-of-its-kind civic club for African American women in Chicago. She also helped to found the Negro Fellowship League (NFL), the first Black settlement house in Chicago. She then helped to organize the Alpha Suffrage Club, one of the most important Black suffrage organizations in Chicago. Her courageous and inspiring story proves the fact that no matter the opposition or oppression, one can still participate in and help to bring about much advancement for African Americans.

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