Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells Barnett, in a photograph by Mary Garrity from c. 1893 (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.

In 2007 dissertation, “Voices of Democracy,” Shirley Wilson Logan of the University of Maryland noted that Ida B. Wells’s life began in adversity.

Born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where the Emancipation Proclamation was issued two months after it took effect, Wells and her family became politically active members of their community. Her parents and an infant brother died after contracting yellow fever, leaving Wells, at the age of 16, to parent her five surviving siblings.

She worked as a schoolteacher and later drew national attention when she was forcibly removed from the ladies’ car on a Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad train. Wells sued the railroad company, winning at the circuit court level before the decision was overturned by the state Supreme Court,

Wilson noted how Wells started to work on her rhetorical skills through elocution lessons with a private instructor and an affiliation with a lyceum attached to the LeMoyne Institute, a Memphis teacher prep school. Those skills proved valuable for what came next.

On Feb. 13, 1893, Wells delivered a scathing rebuke of lynching in front of a mostly white and angry audience at Boston’s Tremont Temple.

Here’s part of her speech, including the opening:

“I am before the American people to day through no inclination of my own, but because of a deep seated conviction that the country at large does not know the extent to which lynch law prevails in parts of the Republic nor the conditions which force into exile those who speak the truth.

“I cannot believe that the apathy and indifference which so largely obtains regarding mob rule is other than the result of ignorance of the true situation.

“And yet, the observing and thoughtful must know that in one section, at least, of our common country, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, means a government by the mob; where the land of the free and home of the brave means a land of lawlessness, murder and outrage; and where liberty of speech means the license of might to destroy the business and drive from home those who exercise this privilege contrary to the will of the mob.

“Repeated attacks on the life, liberty and happiness of any citizen or class of citizens are attacks on distinctive American institutions; such attacks imperiling as they do the foundation of government, law and order, merit the thoughtful consideration of far sighted Americans; not from a standpoint of sentiment, not even so much from a standpoint of justice to a weak race, as from a desire to preserve our institutions.

“The race problem or negro question, as it has been called, has been omnipresent and all-pervading since long before the Afro American was raised from the degradation of the slave to the dignity of the citizen. It has never been settled because the right methods have not been employed in the solution. It is the Banquo’s ghost of politics, religion, and sociology which will not down at the bidding of those who are tormented with its ubiquitous appearance on every occasion.

“Times without number, since invested with citizenship, the race has been indicted for ignorance, immorality and general worthlessness declared guilty and executed by its self-constituted judges. The operations of law do not dispose of negroes fast enough, and lynching bees have become the favorite pastime of the South.

“As excuse for the same, a new cry, as false as it is foul, is raised in an effort to blast race character, a cry which has proclaimed to the world that virtue and innocence are violated by Afro-Americans who must be killed like wild beasts to protect womanhood and childhood. Born and reared in the South, I had never expected to live elsewhere.

“Until this past year I was one among those who believed the condition of masses gave large excuse for the humiliations and proscriptions under which we labored; that when wealth, education and character became more feral among us, the cause being removed the effect would cease, and justice being accorded to all alike.

“I shared the general belief that good newspapers entering regularly the homes of our people in every state could do more to bring about this result than any agency.

“Preaching the doctrine of self-help, thrift and economy every week, they would be the teachers to those who had been deprived of school advantages, yet were making history every day and train to think for themselves our mental children of a larger growth.”

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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