Before there was a Civil Rights Movement, there was Ida B. Wells – 150th Birthday Anniversary July 16
Let me give you thanks for your faithful paper on the lynch abomination now generally practiced against colored people in the South. There has been no word equal to it in convincing power. I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison. You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge. You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity, and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves.
Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If the American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame, and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.
But alas! even crime has power to reproduce itself and create conditions favorable to its own existence. It sometimes seems we are deserted by earth and Heaven—yet we must still think, speak and work, and trust in the power of a merciful God for final deliverance.
Very truly and gratefully yours,
Cedar Hill, Anacostia, D.C.
Preface to “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and
Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States” pamphlet on lynching in America
by Ida B. Wells. Published 1895
In 1994, I completed a full-length play, “Iola’s Letter” dramatizing the catalyst for which Ida B. Wells, at the risk of her own life, became an anti-lynching crusader. In 1892, three black Memphis business partners (all friends of Ida’s), including the first black post office worker Thomas Moss, were victims of a triple lynching. Their only crime was opening an independent grocery store. Ida was away in Mississippi selling subscriptions to her newspaper. The cry of “rape” by a white woman was often justification for mob violence in the South. But that was not the case in Memphis. The Memphis lynching became Ida’s impetus for digging deeper into one of the most wretched blights of the Reconstruction/Jim Crow era. She would be relentless. “The Red Record” (preface printed above), was Ida B. Wells’ report of her investigations.
While writing “Iola’s Letter” (produced and directed by Vera J. Katz at Howard University, and published in Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women edited by Kathy A. Perkins and Judith L. Stephens), I was introduced to members of Ida B. Wells Barnett’s family and have kept those ties ever since. As July 16th approaches, the family will be involved in 150th anniversary of her birth with activities in Holly Springs, MS (Ida’s birth place), Memphis, TN, and Chicago, IL (her permanent home). Below is a release I drafted for the family to promote the events in Holly Springs, and Memphis. Fundraising efforts are underway by Wells-Barnett’s great granddaughter Michelle Duster for an Ida B. Wells monument near the site of the former Ida B. Wells Housing Project in Bronzeville – Chicago. [The Ida B. Wells Housing Project homes were demolished in 2002 -- completely by 2011 -- to be replaced with mixed-income housing.]
Sadly in a time when information is in abundance and volumes can be stored on the smallest micro chip, Ida B. Wells’ story has somehow fallen into the information vortex of the digital age. Imagine how quickly the impact of this investigative journalist would’ve been had she used today’s technology or even the media strategies of the civil rights movement (television). Ida used the resources of her time — her pen, her press, her eloquence, and unbridled determination — to launch an anti-lynching crusade, advocate for women’s suffrage, and the rights of the disenfranchised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Where would the civil rights movement be without her and many others that came before?
PIONEERING AFRICAN AMERICAN JOURNALIST AND CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST
IDA B. WELLS CELEBRATES HER 150TH BIRTHDAY
Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Holly Springs to Give a Birthday Celebration
with the Wells-Barnett Family July 13 – 15
(Holly Springs, MS) At age 29, a single black woman journalist launched an anti-lynching campaign from her newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee in 1892 after the murders of three friends and local grocery store owners Thomas Moss, Henry Stewart, and Calvin MacDowell. Her name was Ida B. Wells. She was known as the “Princess of the Press” and owner/partner of a newspaper titled “Free Speech,” a name she didn’t take for granted. Ida B. Wells would not only lose her own newspaper for her outspoken editorials on lynching, she would become an exile and one of the most influential journalists of her time. Frederick Douglass would become one of her mentors, and she later co-founded the NAACP with W.E.B. DuBois. Ida B. Wells also stood shoulder-to-shoulder with suffragists and women’s rights.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Ida B. Wells’s birth. A birthday celebration is planned at the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in her birthplace of Holly Springs, Mississippi from July 13 – 15. On Friday, there will be an arts festival featuring gospel music including an open mic, and dance. Ida B. Wells’s granddaughter Alfreda Duster Ferrell and other members of the Wells-Barnett family plan to be in attendance for the birthday party and a family reunion. (Ida would marry another newspaper owner, Ferdinand Barnett of Chicago.) The museum serves as tribute, landmark, and art and cultural center focusing on the accomplishments of African Americans.
The Ida B. Wells-Barnett museum is housed in the Spires Bolling/Gatewood House (1853) in the East Holly Springs historic district. The original owner of the house, whose last name was Bolling, was a major builder in town and owned slaves. Ida’s father James Wells’ was both the property and son of Mr. Bolling by another slave named Peggy. Bolling had no children by his legal wife and gave James Wells an apprenticeship in his building business. James continued working for his father even after Emancipation and married another slave owned by Bolling named Elizabeth. Their first child, Ida Bell Wells, was born July 16, 1862. Ida’s family life would be changed forever by the yellow fever epidemic. At 16 she lost both her parents and her youngest brother. She took her parents’ place and cared for her remaining siblings with the help of relatives. Ida dressed more mature so she could get a teaching job to support her family. She would move to Memphis, just 40 miles away where her journalism career took flight through a series of publications owned and edited by Black journalists.
Having never known life as a slave, Ida B. Wells was part of a new generation and movement for civil rights decades before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1884, Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat in the ladies section of a train and move to the crowded smoking car (reserved for Black passengers). The conductor tried to remove her by force. She bit him on the hand and later sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and won a $500 settlement, which had to be repaid when the railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Tours of Ida B. Wells’s Holly Springs to Memphis life are available from Heritage Tours in Memphis, Tennessee founded by sisters Elaine Turner and Joan Nelson. The Ida B. Wells tour was originally created for the Wells-Barnett family during their visits to Holly Springs, but is available to other visitors. The tour begins in Memphis and includes stops at the two sites of the offices for “The Free Speech,” The Peoples Grocery Store, the jail and the “killing field,” the scene of the catalyst for Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching crusade. Rust College (formerly Shaw University, Ida’s alma mater) and the museum conclude the tour in Mississippi. Other tours of Memphis’s African American heritage are available.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett 150th Birthday Celebration
July 13 – 15, 2012
Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum, Holly Springs, MS
220 North Randolph Avenue
Holly Springs, MS 38635
Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturdays – Noon to 5 p.m
Closed – Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, Easter
Admissions – Donations
Adults – $3
Children – $2 (under 12 must be accompanied by an adult)
Contact Heritage Tours for schedule and tickets