Crusader for Justice: The life and legacy of Ida B. Wells

Black History

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) – A pioneer, investigative journalist, and powerful crusader in the fight for justice – Ida B. Wells launched her activism in the Mid-South.

She was internationally and nationally known as “the crusader for justice,” but before all that Wells got her humble beginnings in Holly Springs, Mississippi. 

“She is my ‘She-ro’,” chuckled Dr. Leona Harris, the executive director Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum. The museum is in well-preserved home, with at least four rooms downstairs. 

“To me she’s a humanitarian, a great humanitarian,” continued Harris. “A woman who was really willing to sacrifice everything.”

Dr. Harris has dedicated the latter part of her life to making sure Wells is not forgotten.

Wells, who was born a slave, is a heroine to many.

Portrait of American journalist, suffragist and Progressive activist Ida Wells Barnett (1862 – 1931), 1890s. (Photo by R. Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Like any journey, it’s best to begin at the beginning.

“Here you have a kid,” said Harris. “Four-years-old, five-years-old, who’s been taught to read. So, it was brought up in her home, the foundation was laid there.”

Young Ida wasn’t reading children’s books.

“She was reading about the period at the time,” Harris explained. “What was the period at the time? That was during the reconstruction era.”

Wells’ parents died of yellow fever when she was just 16. She was left to raise her five siblings.

To support them, she became a teacher, eventually moving her brothers and sisters to the bustling city of Memphis.

In the mid-1800s, Wells refused to give up her train seat after buying a first-class ticket.

We spoke to her great grandson on the significance of that defining moment. 

“Based on some documentation that we’ve seen, it looks like it happened once, and then she intentionally did it again to make a bigger scene and then sue the railroad,” said Well’s great-grandson Dan Duster. 

“Ida B. Wells sued and won in the lower courts,” explained Daphene McFerren, the executive director at the Hooks Institute. “But that was reversed, and she was devastated.”

In Memphis, she would leave one of her biggest marks.

“She wrote as an editor for papers in Memphis and throughout the country,” said McFerren. “This was for the black press.”

That included “The Memphis Free Speech” newspaper, which was born in the basement of the Historic First Baptist Church on Beale Street.

Wells then turned her attention and resources to lynchings in the city.

Ida B Wells’ good friend Thomas Moss was arrested and later lynched. The incident added more fuel to her anti-lynching campaign.

“She had a friend named Thomas Moss, who operated a grocery store at what we called back then the curve, which is really in the area of LeMoyne-Owen,” McFerren shared. 

Moss and the store’s co-owners, who were earning more than the white competition, were arrested then lynched without a trial.

“Members of the black community felt a great loss because distinguished members of the community were killed for no reason,” McFerren said. “Other than they were trying to economically empower themselves.”

But Wells didn’t stick around to witness the retaliation to her publication.

“It’s suspected that she was intentionally out of town when she published the report, because she knew that there was going to be backlash,” said Duster. “She was intentionally in New York.”

Using one of the first papers targeted to African-Americans.

“She was a genius in that respect of merging the statistical part of the number of people being lynched with the personal stories,” McFerren said. 

The personal stories of her descendants live on.

“The assumption tends to be that we had intimate discussions about it from birth,” Duster said. “We actually didn’t. It was a bigger deal that we were sons of Donald and Maxine Duster.”

Duster says his great grandmother’s impact didn’t fully resonate with him until he got into college.

“It’s humbling because she did have things to lose, and that’s to me the test of courage,” Duster explained. 

When asked what he believes her thoughts would be on where the black community stands today?

“The black lives matter movement, the fact that we still need, 150 years after she was born is crazy,” said Duster. “Some of our behavior as black people is still disappointing. To fight for the freedoms that we have and for the voting rights and so forth, for people to still not exercise those rights.”

Without an “Ida,” fighting for rights before they included everyone, I couldn’t bring you this story today.

©TEGNA Inc. 2019. All Rights Reserved.

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