Ida was born the daughter of slaves in Mississippi in 1862, so she was already off to a great start. Look at her, she looks not impressed.
Fortunately for her and millions of other people, (some of) the US was already on their way to realising that enslaving people wasn’t… a very nice thing to do… or a gross violation of human rights, as you would say today.
Only a few month after Ida was born, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation – awesome action, sick rhyme. The Emancipation Proclamation legally changed the status of slaves to free people, although for Ida and her family it took until after the Civil War for this to actually become reality.
After emancipation and the war, Ida’s father helped found Shaw University for former slaves, who were free in theory but obviously not free enough to attend existing schools. Ida also attended Shaw but was apparently kicked out because she was too much of a rebel.
When she was 16, a yellow fever epidemic killed both her parents and her little brother. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her remaining 5 siblings were supposed to be split up and send off to different foster homes.
16 GOING ON KICKASS
Ida wasn’t having any of that, so she decided to find herself a job to take care of her siblings herself and keep the family together. Still a teenager she was now responsible for 5 kids, immediately making any 16-and-pregnant candidate look a bit ridiculous. Fortunately, she did have the help of her grandmother who took care of the kids while she was off working as a school teacher.
Over the next couple of years, Ida continued teaching, moved to Memphis, attended summer school, and became more and more fed up with the ongoing discrimination African Americans were facing every day.
Already a revolutionary in the making, Ida at one point was asked to give up her first-class seat on a train and move to the overcrowded smoking car. Bad idea. She plainly refused and got dragged off the train. Naturally, she sued the railroad company. She actually won the case with the help of a white lawyer, which was apparently necessary at the time to accomplish shit. Unfortunately, history is a bitch and so the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the ruling three years later and ordered Ida to pay the court costs. This episode definitely didn’t help to improve her stance on the general state of things.
THE POWER OF WORDS
While she was still a teacher, Ida had already started writing articles about racial injustice in the South for multiple papers. She eventually started her own paper appropriately called “Free Speech”. As she got more and more frustrated about the reality of discrimination against African Americans, her articles got more and more confrontational, eventually leading to her being fired from her teaching job. However, this only motivated her to put all her energy in her writing and fighting for the improvement and advancement of African Americans.
THE TRUTH ABOUT LYNCHINGS
Ida witnessed the struggles her friends and community were facing every day. One of her friends, Thomas Wells, had set up his own shop in the neighbourhood. It was going rather well when one day the store got attacked by a bunch of white dudes with guns. In the resulting altercation, three of those dudes managed to get themselves shot. I’m not saying they might have deserved it, but…
Of course, Thomas and the two men who were with him that day got arrested for killing the white attackers. However, before they even had a chance to stand trial, a large mob of people broke into the jail, dragged them out of their cells and killed them.
These killings without trial, or lynchings, were disgustingly common in the South during that time. For the most part, lynching African Americans – read dragging them out in the street and hanging them from a tree – was justified with the “fact” that the black man had raped a white woman. And because people cried rape, lynchings were sort of tolerated because maybe the guy sort of deserved it.
The murder of Thomas, which very obviously had nothing to do with rape, pushed Ida to investigate other instances of lynchings. What she found out was as eye-opening as it was horrible.
While there were in fact instances of sexual relations between African American men and white women, those were in fact – shock horror – mostly consensual, an idea rather difficult to grasp for the white man. It turned out that sex had often very little to do with lynchings, other than serving as an excuse.
As Ida investigation showed, the real motivation behind lynchings was money (isn’t it always?) African Americans were finally starting to have economic success, scaring the shit out of the white man. So lynchings were, in fact, a tool to keep the African American community terrorised and therefore under control, so they wouldn’t pose an economic threat. Seriously, WTF?
Almost as if to prove her point, Ida’s articles on the reasons behind lynchings resulted in a mob breaking into her office and trashing the place. Fortunately, Ida was out of town at that time, but being faced with death threats should she ever returned Memphis, Ida decided to stay up North and continue her fight against lynchings, discrimination and segregation there.
Ida went on to publish extensive articles and pamphlets, with forbidding titles such as “A Red Record” and “Southern Horrors”. She also lectured in the US and abroad, and drummed up support wherever she found like-minded audiences; women’s clubs, newspaper editors, other activists, the suffragette movement, to name a few.
Having already gathered support abroad, Ida went on to found the National Association of Colored Women and the National Afro-American Council, in order to unite and organise the movement at home.
Ida, her husband Ferdinand L. Barnett, and their children eventually settled in Chicago, where she continued to support the African American community to overcome the challenges created by discrimination and segregation. She dedicated the last 30 years of her life to her family and her work in Chicago but never stopped being a fierce campaigner speaking up against injustice.
One of her most famous quotes perfectly sums Ida B. Well’s work and spirit:
“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”