Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

IDA B. WELLS BARNETT
(1862-1931), agitator for African-American rights

MARY M. BOONE HUTTON

Ida B. Wells Barnett dedicated herself to eradicating lynch law. In that effort, she interpreted and expressed the suffering and oppression inflicted on African- Americans through the press and on the platform in the United States and Great Britain. She believed that "the people must know before they can act," and she was strongly convinced that "there is no educator to compare with the press" ( Southern Horrors, 23). A contemporary called her "a special envoy and ambassador extraordinary, sent to earth in behalf of great movements of democracy, interracial concord and cooperation" (Gaines Box 1, March, 1931). Her great hatred of injustice, her militant spirit, and her experiences in the South, along with her talents as a writer and speaker, combined to make her ideally suited to be an advocate for African-Americans.


BACKGROUND

Ida Bell Wells was born on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi ( Crusade, 15). Her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic in 1878, and at age sixteen, the oldest of three sisters and two brothers, she assumed the responsibilities of head-of-household. She obtained a position teaching in a rural Holly Springs school, but after one term, she moved to Memphis, where she first taught in rural Shelby County while studying to obtain city certification ( Crusade, 18; Fortune's account [ 1893:35] differs). While teaching in Memphis, she worked to improve her academic skills, taking private lessons, including lessons in elocution and dramatics. As a member of the local lyceum she was elected to edit the Evening Star, and when she read aloud the items she had written, attendance increased. Among those attending was the Reverend R. N. Countee, publisher of the Living Way, who invited her to write for his paper, which she did for two years ( Crusade, 22-23).

Although she had no journalistic training, Wells quickly observed that most of her readers had little formal schooling and needed reading material that addressed their problems simply and helpfully. "I wrote in a plain, common-sense way on the things which concerned our people," she said in her autobiography. "Knowing that their education was limited, I never used a word of two syllables where one would serve the purpose" ( Crusade, 24). Her articles were reprinted in and commented on by African-American newspapers around the country. She became widely known by the pen name "Iola," which she used during her early journalistic career.

Wells believed that if African-Americans were to change the conditions under which they lived, they had to rise and free themselves. Decisions handed down

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