Are You Active?
In light of all the information about civil liberties and individual rights reported on in the media today, I share this quote from Ida B. Wells in the late 1800s. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and it does seem to me that notwithstanding all these social agencies and activities, there is not that vigilance which should be exercised, in the preservation of our rights,” I ask you how vigilant you are?
Do you consume the news via television, newspaper, or social media? How much weight do you put into the validity of this content? Do you vote in national elections or local elections? Do you consider mid-term elections worthwhile?
I know that I have posed more questions than answers, but these are the questions I ask myself. Today there is a lot of information, but I still find it hard to determine what is truth and if it's a biased position of truth. I want to know who is to gain from this information and why?
The focus of my post today is on a woman who spent a lot of her time in my city, Chicago, her name is Ida B. Wells. She was an investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement. She was also one of the key founders who created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Speak Your Truth
She gave a voice to black men and women where there were very few. She may have been one of the bravest people you have heard of but didn't know, and I hope to change that for you.
How Did You Start Out?
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery around the beginning of the Civil War, July 16th, 1862, near Holly Springs, Mississippi. She would be a free citizen of the U.S. in about six months when the Emancipation Proclamation would become a Federal law on January 1, 1863. This law would radically change the lives of some 3.5 million enslaved black people who could escape the confederate states to the Union lines. Ultimately, this law would include the entire country in April of 1865, when the Civil War ended.
Although this seems like a great time to be born for Ida, you would be mistaken. The period after the Civil War would be called Reconstruction (1865-1877), and it would have profound and immediate effects on the power structure within the government of the United States.
In a future post, I will go into more details about Reconstruction and the original intentions Lincoln had planned for it before his untimely death. Let's just say that the black vote was hugely instrumental in getting black men voted into all levels of the U.S. government and seat of power. Ultimately, this would lead to the Jim Crow area of justice and Southern voter suppression laws that would push back the benefits the North had fought for. Remember what I said about vigilance in the opening quote. However, this post is for Ida, and I wanted to share with you how the post-Civil War would impact her life forever.
The Formative Years
Wells was one of eight children in her family, and she was always considered one of the brightest. She had done well in school and had the opportunity to attend Rust College, a historically black college in her hometown of Holly Springs. While attending school in September 1878, Ida had been informed that yellow fever had struck and killed both her parents and younger brother. After the funeral, several friends and relatives discussed splitting up the family and sending the remaining children to live with foster parents.
Ida would have none of that and took a job as an elementary teacher at an all-black school in Holly Springs. Her grandmother Peggy Wells, along with other friends and relatives, stayed with her siblings and cared for them during the week while Wells was teaching. About two years later, tragedy struck again, and Peggy Wells had a stroke, and her sister Eugenia died. She and two of her younger sisters would live with an aunt, Fanny Butler, in Memphis.
Ida would soon find work as a school teacher in Woodstock, Memphis, and carve out time to attend college.
She would also start to find her voice and speak to injustice for black and white people equally. On May 4, 1884, Wells would experience firsthand what it meant to be a black woman traveling in the Southern states. On one such trip, she was ordered by a train conductor to give up her seat in the first-class lady's car and move to the smoking car, which was already packed, with other passengers. Some of you might know, the civil rights law on discrimination was drafted at the time, but would not be passed for another 80 years in 1964.
During the late 1800s, any business could refuse service on a racially motivated basis. As a result, Wells refused to give up her seat, the conductor and two men dragged her out of the car and placed her in coach. Ida gained publicity in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a Black church weekly, about her treatment and experience on the train. After hiring an African-American attorney to sue the railroad, she found out that her lawyer was paid off, by the railroad, so she hired a White attorney.
Ida would win the battle and receive a $500 award. That victory was short-lived, and the railroad appealed the decision. They won the case, and Ida was subject to pay all legal fees. Here is the court's ruling: "We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride."
Wells was not silent, and this is what she wrote after the verdict was read, "I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people... O God, is there no... justice in this land for us?"
The Free Speech Movement
Throughout the years, Ida would continue her work as a journalist and eventually become the co-owner and editor of The Free Speech and Headlight, a Black-owned newspaper established by the Reverend Taylor Nightingale (1844–1922). As a journalist and editor, Ida would have many opportunities to report on stories that were charged with racism. None were more important than the story of the People's Grocery in Memphis. After a fight over a game of marbles between two young men (one white and one black), the father of the white boy stepped in a started beating the black youth. Two of the black employees from the People's Grocery stepped in to help the young black boy, and it was enough to enrage a white mob to confront the store owner and his employees.
The next day six white men, including a sheriff's deputy, charged the grocery store and were met by gunfire. The next day hundreds of white men were deputized almost immediately to put down what was perceived as a black rebellion. The horde took Thomas Moss, owner of the People's Grocery, who the mob named as a conspirator, along with the two employees who helped the young black boy, McDowell, and Stewart. They were immediately charged, and jailed where they awaited trial. The only problem was several days later, five men wearing black masks took Moss, McDowell, and Stewart from their jail cells at the Shelby County Jail to a Chesapeake and Ohio rail yard one mile north of the city and shot them dead.
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The Pen is Mightier Than The Sword
Ida B. Wells happened to be very close to Moss and his family, having stood as godmother to his first child, Maurine E. Moss, and was devastated when she heard the news. She began to use her pen to fight this and many other flagrant acts of racism and unjust people of power. Her investigative reporting earned her the reputation as a great writer and champion for the average citizen.
The investigative work she did was so detailed and obvious that it was stirring up both black and white readers. There was no doubt that racism played a much larger role in society than most wanted to admit. It got so much recognition that in March of 1892, the following quotes were printed in local Memphis newspapers. The Daily Commercial published this threat: "The fact that a Black scoundrel [Ida B. Wells] is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern Whites. But we've had enough of it." The Evening Scimitar (Memphis) copied the story that same day, but, raised the threat: "Patience under such circumstances is not a virtue. "If the Negroes themselves do not apply the remedy without delay it will be the duty of those whom he has attacked to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison Sts., brand him in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor's shears." Shortly after these printings, a White mob ransacked the Free Speech office, destroying the building and all of its contents.
A New Beginning
Ida and her partner fled from Memphis to New York, where she would continue investigating and writing about the mob lynchings and unjust allegations of black men. Ultimately she concluded that Southerners would cry rape as an excuse to hide their real reasons for lynchings: Black economic progress, which was threatening White Southerners with competition, and White ideas of enforcing Black second-class status in their society. Evidence for this statement starts with Mississippi in 1890, when they passed laws and new constitutions to disenfranchise (make it hard or impossible to vote) most Black people and many poor White people through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other discriminating devices.
After three years in New York, Ida would settle in Chicago, where she would continue her anti-lynching work while sharpening her focus on the civil rights of African Americans.
In 1893, she organized The Women's Era Club, a first-of-its-kind civic club for African-American women in Chicago. It would later be renamed the Ida B. Wells Club in her honor. In 1896, Wells took part in the meeting in Washington, D.C., that founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. The club was a leading advocate to establish a housing project in Chicago named after the founder, Ida B. Wells, and succeeded, making history in 1939 as the first housing project named after a colored woman. Wells also helped organize the National Afro-American Council, serving as the organization's first secretary.
Champion of The People
Her work in the suffrage movement was tied to her need to raise the level of equality and participation of women in the political process. She knew that women would have a significant voice in policy change in local, State, and Federal elections. In the 1900s, Wells enlisted support from the social reformer, Jane Addams, to stop the legislation of segregating the Chicago school system, beating a trend that started in the South and would last in many states well into the 1960s.
As Ida's life began its sunset, she started writing her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, but never finished the book; it was posthumously published by her daughter Alfreda Barnett Duster, in 1970, as Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.
Wells died of kidney failure in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68. She has not been forgotten, her name appears on many awards, housing developments, Museums, foundations, stamps, as well as, the National Women's Hall of Fame. Ida was a person who would not go silently in this world. Her belief and faith carried her and many others to a place where all people could be free of discrimination.
Vigilance is Liberty
I want to remind you that we don't have to be giants in this world to affect positive change. We need to remember the lessons of the past and be vigilant in upholding liberty for all. History has shown us, there are only a few individuals who would take from others, but many more who will stand up for what is right. Vigilance is defined as the quality or state of being. So stay attentive and active, as no institution or agency alone will do this for you. Do not become distracted from what you know to be right. Ida would have wanted that for all of us.