Ida B. Wells: The truth teller is always free, lives on forever

We're Still Here: Community Activists

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Although persecuted for much of her time on earth for her honesty in writing and candor in activism, Ida B. Wells- Barnett went down in history as one of the most influential journalists, activists, educators and truth-tellers of the 19th and 20th Centuries. (File Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

Buddha said, “Three things that cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth,” and although, since the beginning of time, people have worked to hide the truth, history has proven that the real story always comes out. Almost six centuries later, Jesus famously said in John 8:32, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” although theologians believe he is speaking about following God in this particular context. Approximately 2,000 years later, Gloria Steinem remixed Jesus’ words saying, “The truth will set you free, but first it’ll piss you off.”

Ida B. Wells was a truth teller, and although she was pushed aside, persecuted and punished for it, her fearlessness in unveiling injustices, calling out inaccuracies and constant insistence on honesty is the exact reason the Black woman writer, journalist and activist is still inspiring others to this day and finally being recognized for her major contributions to American literature, activism and equal rights.  

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” Wells famously said in an 1892 speech. Wells had experienced a lot in her short 30 years, when she famously spoke on revealing the horrifying realities of injustice that plague America, and at that juncture the truth did not scare her.

By her early 20s, Wells, from Holly Springs, Miss., had been born into slavery,  kicked out of Rust College for beginning a dispute with the university’s president, orphaned by her parents who died in the the yellow fever pandemic, left her to take care of her younger siblings; and she relocated to Memphis. 

By 22, Wells, who worked as a teacher to first support her siblings, filed a lawsuit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad company after being thrown off a first-class car when she would not give up her seat despite having a ticket (71 years before Rosa Parks, might I add). White passengers applauded the embarrassing, racist moment as she was kicked off the first-class car, and although she won in local courts, Wells ultimately lost the case, igniting her interest in journalism and activism. Wells later wrote about the experience on the train car in her autobiography.

In August 2020, as part of the centennial celebration for Women’s Suffrage, a massive mosaic of Ida B. Wells was installed and housed for days at Union Station in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Photo)

“[The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding onto the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out,” she said.

That would not be the first time Wells would be persecuted for her truth telling. Years before co-founding the NAACP, she dove deeply into journalism after being disturbed by all the lynchings of Blacks. She was an editor by age 25 and published an 1892 exposé on the horrors of lynching, which upset the people of her town. They ran her out of Memphis and to the shelter of the Windy City.

It was in Chicago that Wells found her family, marrying her husband, attorney Ferdinand Lee Barnett, with whom she had two stepsons and gave birth to four children; further developing her voice of truth.There she helped create organizations to assist Black women with justice reform, while also remaining steadfast in her crusade against lynching, eventually publishing Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Wells’ passionate writings against racism and lynchings caught the attention of some of the greatest minds of her time, including Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. She joined DuBois in 1906 to help grow the Niagara Movement and was one of two Black women who officially signed the documents forming the NAACP.

With all her groundbreaking work, as a Black woman, even in certain activism circles, Wells still struggled with major oppression.

In 1913 Wells and other Black suffragists were turned away from marching in the front of the first women’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C.,  a fight that was optically spearheaded by many White women due to the already pervasive racism and sexism that openly ruled this country. Black women were the lowest on the totem pole of equal rights, even to many of the White suffragists.

“Ida B. Wells is one of the best known Black suffragists. In 1913, when some White women’s suffrage organizations tried to exclude Black women from their Women Suffrage Procession, she infamously inserted herself into the parade, refusing to march in a segregated unit,” wrote AFRO Archive Director Savannah Wood, who curated the book To the Front: Black Women and the Vote.

Wells just didn’t take oppression well. She fought it relentlessly with the truth, which ultimately made her free.

“I think Ida B. Wells should be remembered as an African-American woman who battled both racism and sexism at a time when it was extremely dangerous to speak out,” Michelle Duster, Wells’ granddaughter said, according to Suffrage100MA. “She used her gift of writing, speaking and organizing to help shed light on injustice. She was extremely brave and held steadfast to her convictions despite being criticized, ostracized and marginalized by her contemporaries.”

Though her contemporaries criticized her, modern American culture lauds Wells for her major contributions to literature and equal rights. Many major cities including Washington, D.C., Nashville, Chicago and San Francisco have schools named after the educator and writer.  

In 2020, Wells received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, almost 90 years after her passing.  Also in 2020, many of the centennial celebrations surrounding Women’s Suffrage, highlighted the activist, including the Our Story: Portraits of Change,” 1000-foot mosaic featuring tiny photographs of Wells’ contemporaries, which altogether, create a massive image of the famously oppressed suffragette. The mosaic was housed at Union Station in Washington, D.C., just a short distance from the site where Wells was asked to segregate herself during the suffrage march of 1913.

“Between her posthumous Pulitzer recognition and this stunning mosaic in her honor, it seems she is finally getting her due from mainstream organizations,” Wood told the AFRO in August when the massive mural was installed and housed in the nation’s capital transportation hub for less than a week.

Though she may have been persecuted during her 68 years on earth for her candor in words and actions, Wells has gone down in history as one of the most influential activists, journalists and educators of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

“I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said,” Wells famously said.