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Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race by James W. Davidson Essay

Ida B. Wells, an African-American woman, and feminist, shaped the image of empowerment and citizenship during post-reconstruction times. The essays, books, and newspaper articles she wrote, instigated the dialogue of race struggles between whites and blacks, while her personal narratives, including two diaries, a travel journal, and an autobiography, recorded the personal struggle of a woman to define womanhood during post-emancipation America. The novel, _THEY SAY: IDA B. WELLS AND THE RECONSTRUCTION OF RACE_ , provides an insight into how Ida B. Wells’s life paralleled that of African-Americans trying to gain citizenship and empowerment in post-slavery America.

From the beginning, Ida B. Wells was shaped by firm moral convictions and religious beliefs taught to her by her mother and father. Ida B. Wells was born to Jim and Elizabeth Wells in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862. Ida B. Wells attended Shaw University until the deaths of her parents and youngest brother during the yellow fever epidemic that claimed her parents’ lives in less than a week. She mentioned in her diary that her parents would “turn in their graves” if her remaining family were to be separated, so at sixteen, she became a schoolteacher, in order to support her brothers and sisters so they would not be given to different parents and separated. Later, she began teaching in Woodstock, Tennessee, a rural community in Shelby County, but moved to Memphis when she obtained a position in the public schools in 1884.

During this year in Memphis, Ida B. Wells sued the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroads after she was lifted and carried out and removed from the first-class ladies’ coach by the train conductor. In December 1884 the circuit court ruled in her favor, but three years later the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision. That experience prompted Ida B. Wells to write letters to Memphis weeklies and, later, to African American newspapers like the _New York Freeman_ and _Gate City Press_.

During her tenure as a writer for these papers, Ida B. Wells wrote several articles, such as “Our Women” and “Race Pride.” These articles showed that Ida B. Wells was becoming more and more focused with African-American equality and issues with prejudice, and also with gender issues as a woman living in this time, especially an African-American woman. During this time, Ida B. Wells was becoming more and more noticed for her militant attitude in her writings. She became ostracized for her outspoken nature and blunt writings. Although criticized by the white community, she began to influence other black writers to realize their need for empowerment, and they began to speak out against their injustices.

Between 1885 and 1887 Ida B. Wells kept a diary describing her struggle as a single professional woman. Ida B. Wells wrote about her life as an independent woman, committed to working, self-improvement, and uplifting the black race. She recorded acts of mob violence, such as the act of mob-lynching black men by white men, for committing lewd acts against white women. Oftentimes, there was not any sufficient evidence to prove these men guilty, and Ida B. Wells wrote about the prejudice they faced by not going through due process of law before convicted and lynched. Ida B. Wells wrote the loss of her suit against the railroad companies as well. In addition, she wrote about conferences in Kansas and Kentucky, where she was elected secretary of the Negro Press Association.

Two years later, she bought an interest in the Memphis _Free Speech and Headlight_ and became a full-time journalist in 1891. During this time, Ida B. Wells lost her teaching position in the Tennessee County School Systems because of editorials attacking inferior segregated schools. After three African-American grocers were brutally murdered by a white Memphis mob in March 1892, Ida B. Wells wrote fiery editorials urging citizens to flee the city. She talked about how the act of lynching was a racist strategy to eliminate black men by means of racism.

Ida B. Wells was also outspoken about the charges of rape against African-American men. Ida B. Wells believed that these charges were trying to hide the consensual relations between white women and African-American men. Whites were so shocked and infuriated by these allegations that they destroyed her newspaper office while Wells was away and dared her to return to Memphis. Not intimidated by any of the white men’s threats, Wells kept a gun in her house and advised that guns should be kept in the homes of all African-Americans during that time, as a means for protection.

Ida B. Wells also bought an interest in the _New York Age_ and wrote two weekly columns entitled “Iola’s Southern Field,” and kept increasing her oral and written campaign against lynching mainly through lectures and editorials. Some of these works by Ida B. Wells include _Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases_; _A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States_; and _Mob Rule in New Orleans_ (1900). In all of these works, Wells argues and contemplates the economic and political causes of racial oppression and injustices. In her writing she analyzes racist sexual tensions, and explains the relationship between terrorists and community leaders, and urges African-Americans to resist oppression through boycotts and emigration. Her manifestation of black empowerment can bee easily seen in these writings.

Soon after, Ida B. Wells was dealing with more issues of gender roles in society. After her June 27, 1895 marriage to Ferdinand L. Barnett, a Chicago lawyer, newspaper writer, and widower with two sons, Ida B. Wells was questioned for her marriage by the famous suffragist, Susan B. Anthony. Ida B. Wells had joined the suffragist movement with Susan B. Anthony, and they together preached the important of equal women’s rights. Ida B. Wells was traditionally feminist, and now had to deal with the dilemma of being married, as well as having children. Professionally, Ida B. Wells also ended up buying the _Chicago Conservator_ from her husband and continued to write following the births of her children.

One of the most important accomplishments during Ida B. Wells’ lifetime was her being elected secretary of the National Afro-American Council. This same council called for a conference that led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This group openly displayed its prominence in the black community during post-emancipation times. All the members of the organization were outspoken colored individuals who wanted to speak out against the prejudice of the time. They came together to discuss strategies, as well as solutions. The founding of this organization was one of the most important advancements showing black people’s wishes to be more prominent in the community. Their main discussions revolved around the concern of disenfranchisement of blacks during this time period.

Ida B. Wells continued her crusade against violence into her fifties. In 1918 she covered the race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, and wrote a series of articles on the riot for the _Chicago Defender_. Four years later she returned south to investigate the indictment for murder of twelve innocent Arkansas farmers. She then wrote _The Arkansas Race Riot_ and raised money to publish and distribute one thousand copies of her report. Throughout her final years, she continued to write for the newspaper, thus continuing her belief in African-Americans should seek their own justice.

In 1928 Wells-Barnett began an autobiography, which was edited and published posthumously by her daughter, Alfreda Duster, and she kept a diary in 1930 that depicts her campaigning for election to the Illinois State Senate. After a sudden illness, she died in Chicago on March 25, 1931 at 68 years old.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was one of the most outstanding women of the late nineteenth century. She was a militant thinker and writer whose essays, pamphlets, and books provide a well-respected analysis of lynching. She was a reformer whose insistence on resistance to oppression laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement. In addition, her diary and autobiography offer a look into the formation of African-American female identity in the late nineteenth century. Ida B. Wells paved the way for new strategies and empowerment for colored people after the abolition of slavery. She remains an influence and an inspiration for those who seek to overcome struggle and injustice today.


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