Ida B. Wells, the young journalist from Memphis, Tennessee, was the co-publisher of a newspaper titled Free Speech. Going door to door seeking new subscribers, her tenacity caused the Memphis-based newspaper’s readership to double.
Blessed to find research online from articles, universities and in particular, Shannon Moreau, I discovered that one day, Wells’ pastor told her something that changed the trajectory of her life forever: “Miss Wells, something bad has happened in Memphis.”
Worried what she might he would say, her hands shook as he said, “Last night, a mob of White men dragged three Black men down to the railroad tracks and shot them to death.” To her amazement, one of the victims was her dear friend and proprietor Thomas Moss.
Wells never felt so helpless. With teary eyes, she said, “It can’t be. … Thomas Moss and his wife are my good friends.”
She arrived in Memphis too late to attend her slain friend’s funeral. Heading straight to his pregnant widow, Betty, and their daughter, Maurine, she was determined to bring comfort to his family. Brutal killings of Blacks in the South were on the rise, and they were going unpunished despite the recently passed Civil Rights Act.
“Betty, I’ll never forget the talks Thomas and I had when he delivered mail to the Free Speech every day,” she told the widow. “He believed that we should defend the cause of right and fight wrong wherever we saw it.”
Wells had years earlier suffered her own unspeakable tragedy, having lost both parents and a brother to a yellow fever epidemic in 1878. She had to quit school to take care of six remaining sisters and brothers. But by age 21, Ida was Memphis-bound, eventually taking a teaching position in a rural school in Woodstock helped her make ends meet there.
She was no stranger to injustice either: In May 1884, Wells was traveling from Memphis to Woodstock when the conductor approached her and said, “I can’t take your ticket here. You’ll have to move to the smoking car.” With a first-class ticket in hand, she refused and got off the train at the next station. A lawsuit filed by her lawyer was unsuccessful.
Wells fought the injustice against Blacks the best way she knew how — with her pen. The first article she’d ever published was an editorial about her incident with the railroad.
One day, she was given a copy of a newspaper the New York Sun, which reported that a group of Memphis citizens had stormed the offices of the Free Speech during the night, destroying all the equipment and running Wells’ business partner J.L. Fleming out of town. The mob left a note behind: “Anybody who tries to publish the paper again will be punished by death.”
Alarmed, Ida sent a telegram to her lawyer to find out if her partner was safe. She was delighted to learn that he got away, but was told there were orders to kill her on sight.
Wells stayed in New York, and then moved to Chicago where she married Ferdinand Barnett, a lawyer and journalist. Devoting the rest of her life to investigating, reporting and lecturing, Ida became famous in England and America for speaking out against the growing numbers of Blacks lynched. Her speeches raised the consciousness of the nation.
Between 1893 and 1898, several Southern states passed anti-lynching laws. Lynching in America had nearly disappeared by the time of her death.
The day Ida B. Wells heard that terrible news about her friend Thomas Moss was a day that changed her life — and the world — forever.
Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. Visit her website, www.lyndiagrantshow.com, send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.