Ida B. Wells: Journalist, Civil Rights Hero and Posthumous Pulitzer Prize Winner

Ida B. Wells: Journalist, Civil Rights Hero and Posthumous Pulitzer Prize Winner
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was one of the nation’s first investigative journalists who launched the nation’s first anti-lynching campaign in 1892. (Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ)

“Having destroyed my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from my home for telling the truth, I felt that I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth now that I was where I could do so freely.” 

These were the words of Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) , one of the nation’s first investigative journalists who launched the nation’s first anti-lynching campaign in 1892. Despite her role in exposing “the truth about lynching”—that claimed some 5,000 victims between 1882 and 1927—Wells was, in recent years, characterized by the New York Post as the “most courageous woman most of us never heard of. ”

The Special Citation of the Pulitzer Prize Committee is bound to go a long way in redressing her undeserved anonymity.

Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, as the oldest of five siblings to enslaved parents, Ida B. Wells moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in the wake of a yellow fever epidemic that killed both of her parents within twenty-four hours of one another.

It was in the “Bluff City,” as it was known, where she taught school and subsequently began her activist career by refusing to leave a first-class Ladies Car in 1883. When a conductor physically forced her out of her seat, she not only bit him—until he “bled freely” as he later complained—she took the railway to court and won the case! 

Accepting an invitation to write about the experience marked the beginning of her career in journalism in which, as she wrote, she “found the real me.” 

By 1889, Wells—who wrote about both political and domestic matters—was one of the few female journalists read equally by men and by women. By then, she was called the “Princess of the Press,” and in that year agreed to be the editor for the Memphis Free Speech newspaper on the condition that she would become a one-third owner of the publication. 

The Free Speech was one of the period’s most militant papers at a time when over 200 Black newspapers were being published each week.  Its influence was keenly felt when a friend of Wells, Thomas Moss, a postman and owner of a grocery, and two other men who worked for him—Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart—were lynched in March of 1892.  In lieu of an arrest of the perpetrators, Wells called for Blacks to leave a city that offered them no protection; and subsequently to boycott Memphis’s trolley cars. In the wake of her editorials, nearly twenty percent of the Black population left Memphis and trolley cars laid virtually empty for over a year. 

Most significantly, Wells began to investigate lynchings. The number of Blacks mob-murdered had been rising since the 1880s, along with charges of what she called the “new crime”: a sudden outbreak of rape of white women by Black men.

However, the lynching of Thomas Moss had nothing to do with sexual predation, but rather with the fact that his grocery successfully competed with that of a white proprietor. As she investigated other lynchings—often going to the site where they occurred to gather evidence and interview witnesses—she found that only a third of Blacks were even accused of rape, much less guilty of it; that Black women were being lynched too; and that when forbidden consensual liaisons between Black men and women were discovered they were characterized as rape. An editorial saying as much resulted in Wells’s Free Speech office being destroyed and she, herself, being threatened with lynching. 

Exiled to New York City, Wells wrote what would be the first study of lynching in a long editorial for the New York Age in 1892, a leading African American newspaper.  With her pen and her activism she had launched the nation’s first antilynching campaign which would take on many forms throughout her career. 

She traveled throughout the country and the British Isles, forming antilynching committees, writing editorials and giving speeches. Assigned a column in the Chicago Inter-Ocean, a white-owned progressive paper, she believed that she was the first African American to attain such a position on a daily publication in the U.S.  

In 1895, Wells married and settled in Chicago where she purchased her husband’s newspaper, and subsequently authored publications emanating out of the organizations she founded, including the Negro Fellowship League settlement house and the Alpha Suffrage Club—the first suffrage club for Black women in the city.  As a co-founder of the NAACP, her findings inspired the organization to make lynching a central tenet of its programs and quest for a federal antilynching law. 

Ida B. Wells: Journalist, Civil Rights Hero and Posthumous Pulitzer Prize Winner
NAACP Poster, circa 1926.

Ida Wells’s publications in both mainstream publications, the Black press, and her important pamphlets that documented major race riots in the U.S. did more than reveal crimes against Blacks; they also revealed the humanity of a race under siege and the means to right the wrongs of a nation.

It is only fitting that the journalism establishment of the U.S.—which once derided Ida B. Wells and her campaign—recognize her worth in 2020 and finally place her in canon where she belongs. 


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About

Paula J. Giddings is the author of IDA, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching— deemed one of the best books of 2008 by both the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. Giddings is also Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor of Africana Studies at Smith College.