NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links


Ida Wells-Barnett Confronts Race and Gender Discrimination

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett

Wanda A. Hendricks, Paulette Pennington
Jones, and Careda Rolland Taylor

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett throughout her life vigorously attacked race and gender discrimination. The challenges she faced as a young girl growing up in the South provided the basis for her lifelong combative form of protest of black inequality. Like most African-Americans growing up in the Jim Crow South, Wells's youth was wrought with strife and conflict. The eldest of eight children, she was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, to Lizzie Warrenton, a former slave woman from Virginia, and Jim Wells, the son of his master. Thrust into premature adulthood when mellow fever epidemic swept through Holly Springs and claimed the lives of her parents and a younger brother, Wells, at sixteen, accepted responsibility for her remaining siblings. Having graduated from Rust College, she found employment as a teacher at a nearby school for twenty-five dollars a month. Seeking better economic opportunity, she migrated to Memphis, Tennessee.

In Memphis she found a better paying teaching position, and there was an active African-American community. Black Memphis residents, however, could not escape the severe restrictions created by the separate and unequal laws that permeated all social, economic, and political aspects of their lives. They were confined to all black neighborhoods, had inadequate school facilities, were denied suffrage, lacked political representation, and bore the brunt of mob violence. Wells found this climate stifling and embarked on a public crusade to end these injustices.


In 1884 twenty-two-year-old Wells defied Jim Crow laws by occupying a seat in the all white "ladies" coach of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. Informed by the conductor that as a black woman she could not sit in the car reserved for white females, Wells stood her ground and refused to move to the all black car. The conductor attempted to forcefully remove her. She bit his hand. The conductor then sought the aid of the baggage man, who assisted in dragging Wells from the coach. Seeking justice, she again defied custom and sued the company. She won a settlement of $500. The victory was bittersweet because a higher court overturned the lower court's decision.

In 1892 when three African-American male colleagues were killed by a white mob, Wells was once again thrust into the spotlight. As part owner of the black newspaper Free Speech, Wells wrote a scathing editorial that charged the entire white community in Memphis with the murders because they had done nothing to retard this kind of lawlessness. She also raised questions about the legitimization of a justice system built on discrimination. Disillusioned, she encouraged blacks in the city to migrate out of the


Southern Horror

state to more racially tolerant areas. In response to the editorial, an angry white mob destroyed her newspaper office and threatened her life. She heeded her own advice, moving first to New York then to Chicago, where she married attorney and newspaper publisher Ferdinand Barnett.

As a result of her experiences in the South, Wells began gathering statistical evidence on the numbers of African-Americans who had died at the hands of whites. She published her findings in Southern Horror: Lynching Law In All Its Phases in 1892. A year later, she attended the Chicago World's Fair, which blatantly discriminated against blacks. With the aid of a black woman's club, Wells-Barnett published the pamphlet The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not In The World's Columbian Exposition. She sold several hundred copies of the pamphlet at the Fair. And, when one of the worst race riots in the twentieth century occurred in Springfield in 1908 she assisted in the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. The primary purposes of the NAACP were to increase awareness of the race problem in America and to bring about effective political change for the benefit of the African-American community.

Wells-Barnett had always believed that political empowerment was an essential key to black equality. That is why she wrote "How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching" for Original Rights Magazine the year after the formation of the NAACP. She was also committed to the enfranchisement of all women, especially African-American women. An active women's rights advocate, she joined in the national push by Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists for universal suffrage. As an active Illinois suffragist she had worked for more than a decade actively pursuing the ballot for women in the state. On many of her campaign stops she discovered that most women, particularly African-American women, had little knowledge of the political process and how it worked. In 1913 she and a white colleague, Belle Squire, formed the Alpha Suffrage Club, the largest black woman's suffrage club in the state. It claimed two hundred members by 1915. The club became a cornerstone of black female political action in Chicago because it provided a forum for them to learn about civic matters and to develop strategies for empowerment.

When the Illinois legislature passed the female suffrage bill a few months after the formation of the Alpha Suffrage Club, members, under the tutelage of Wells-Barnett, began a campaign to elect the first African-American alderman in the city. Some African-American men did not approve of women moving into the public domain of politics. For example, during the primary election in 1914, many men in the second ward taunted the women who canvassed the neighborhood encouraging blacks to register to vote for the Independent African-American candidate. Wells-Barnett rallied the women and persuaded them to continue their work. Though the club's candidate did not win in that election, the foundation for future political projects had been laid. The Republican Party recognized the Alpha club's importance a few months after the primary when it sent two delegates to one of the club's regular meetings. The women were asked to campaign for their candidate in future elections. With a promise from the Repubilcan delegates that an African-American would be nominated by the party, the club members agreed to the Republican party's request. In 1915 the Alpha Suffrage Club women and thousands of other black residents of the second ward elected the first African-American alderman in Chicago, Oscar DePriest.

Perhaps one of Wells-Barnett's most important stands occurred at the March 3, 1913, National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) parade in the nation's capital. NAWSA was the national umbrella organization for state suffrage affiliates. Its history dated to 1890 when the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association merged their forces and resources. The primary goal was to enfranchise women. But, NAWSA did not always embrace all women. The southern white women encouraged to seek membership in NAWSA adhered to the same white supremacy ideology that their men championed. Dependence on southerners for the passage of full suffrage rights for women muffled any opposition that NAWSA might have harbored to the usurpation of the social, economic, and political rights that blacks gained during the Reconstruction years. NAWSA refused to publicly denounce racial segregation, adopted a policy of expediency, and accepted Jim Crow within its own ranks. This left the door open for state affiliates to discriminate


Illinois Suffragists

against black women. But Illinois suffragists had always embraced African-American women like Wells-Barnett and encouraged their participation in the state movement. The Women's State Central Committee, for example, utilized Wells-Barnett's lecturing skills and enlisted her aid in canvassing the state to encourage women to organize and develop political knowledge.

Despite the progressive attitude of white female Illinois suffragists, they refused to support her in the historic suffrage march in Washington. Carrying banners representing almost every state in the Union, thousands of parade marchers underscored the demand for universal female enfranchisement. Wells-Barnett was one of sixty-five enthusiastic delegates from Illinois and one of many black women who participated in the march. But the African-American women were instructed to gather as one unit at the end of the procession because the NAWSA forbade the integration of state affiliates in the march. Wells-Barnett refused to comply with the NAWSA demand and instead lined up with her state contingent. Grace Wilbur Trout, president of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association and chairperson of the group, initially sanctioned the integrated group. But after meeting with a NAWSA official, she told the delegation that Wells-Barnett could not march with the state contingent. Further, if they failed to follow the instructions set forth by the NAWSA, the entire delegation would be denied participation in the march.

Angry at the blatant disregard for her rights as a woman and as an Illinois resident, Wells-Barnett refused to comply. It was time to confront racism within the suffrage movement. Southern women, she argued, had evaded the issues of race, and the NAWSA and its state affiliates had allowed it. She wanted the Illinois group to show the nation that it was progressive enough to stand against NAWSA's hypocrisy of oppressing women because of their race while embracing the idea of equality for all women at the ballot box. Her pleas, however, fell on deaf ears. So did the pleas of two white colleagues, Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks.

Deeply disturbed over the action that her comrades had taken, Wells-Barnett left the parade site. The delegates assumed that she had relented and decided to march with the black contingent. But as the delegates began marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, she quietly stepped out from the crowd of spectators and joined the only white Illinois colleagues sympathetic to her cause, Squire and Brooks. So important was the scene that a photograph of her flanked by the two white women appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune giving the event and its participants local and national exposure. Southern marchers did not defect, but perhaps in part because they did not learn of the incident until after the parade ended. The press coverage reassured many black women of their own place in the suffrage movement and probably convinced many whites that the question of race, gender, and enfranchisement were inextricably tied.

The staunch refusal by Wells-Barnett to march with the black contingent was a small victory, for it impeded the white female prerogative of discriminating against African-American women on racial grounds while simultaneously embracing them along gender lines. Racial xenophobia rather than gender inclusion guided their principles. The endorsement of Jim Crow segregation blinded even Illinois white participants to the fact that unlike the requirement for their African-American counterparts, they did not have to separate their whiteness from their femaleness. Indeed, white women could express the desire for the enfranchisement of women while ignoring African-American women. But Wells-Barnett frustrated their plans. She defined the battle for African-American women's place in the fight for the ballot by taking a stand and confronting those who failed to see their own role in oppressing an already victimized group. For women and for blacks, she rejected the notion that she did not belong among her state delegates. The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 enfranchising all female citizens, regardless of race, upheld Wells-Barnett's conviction for full political rights for black women.

Wells-Barnett resided in Chicago until her death from kidney disease in 1931. She left a legacy of protest activism in social and civic endeavors. She exposed the horrors of lynching to a national audience, inspired hundreds of women to enter into the public domain of politics, and confronted the dualities of race and gender discrimination that African-American women faced.

Click Here for Curriculum Materials


|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois History Teacher 1996|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library