Whenever I play the piano, I do so under the watchful gaze of the great civil-rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. A beautiful bronze bust of her sits atop my old spinet. I may play terribly, but she lends me courage in all endeavors.
Born into slavery in 1862, Wells-Barnett attended what is today Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The college was founded in 1866 by members of the Freedmen’s Aid Society, who came south after the Civil War to set up schools where it had so recently been against the law to teach slaves how to read and write. Many had feared that literacy among slaves would “excite dissatisfaction” (as North Carolina’s law expressed it) and lead to rebellion; indeed, Mississippi’s antebellum law against educating slaves required that freed blacks leave the state altogether.
This fear metastasized after Emancipation. Northern missionaries and reformers flocked to Southern states to establish primary and secondary schools as well as the institutions now referred to as “historically black colleges and universities,” or HBCUs. But white resentment of black empowerment ran deep and strong in the South, culminating in the emergence of terror organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The repressive backlash of the post-Reconstruction era would be formalized as Jim Crow.
It was during this period that Wells-Barnett came of age. As literacy spread among the former slaves, black journalism flourished across the nation. Wells-Barnett co-owned and edited the newspaper Memphis Free Speech. She urged universal suffrage, including for black men and women. Among other things, she refused to leave a first-class carriage from which a conductor tried to expel her, and filed an early lawsuit challenging whites-only railroad cars. And she launched what would become a lifelong crusade against lynching.
The latter is undoubtedly what she is best remembered for today: Wells-Barnett traveled across the South delivering searing investigative reports on the extrajudicial spectacles of hangings, burnings, and dismemberment. After three of her friends were lynched in 1892 for daring to open a grocery store that competed with a white business, she urged African Americans to pack up and leave Memphis. So many hundreds followed her counsel—among them my grandmother and her sisters—that civic leaders tried to persuade her to retract that advice because of the drain on manual and domestic labor. When she refused, a mob burned down the offices of her paper and vowed to kill her. She fled to Chicago and continued to write.