Ida B. Wells: Spotted in the Archives

 In Heroes, History

Justice is denied and monsters try to intimidate. Current events make one thing clear: history repeats. It’s a frustrating repetition.

How did civil rights activists in the 19th and 20th centuries respond to threats of lynching, political persecution and economic oppression? What would they think of modern civil rights movements? What can we learn from them today?

This got us thinking about Ida B. Wells, a fierce freedom fighter who wrote, spoke and organized at the forefront of the Black liberation movement of her time. If she was around today, she’d be educating folks on all platforms, for sure. And we suspect Twitter would be her favorite. But that’s just a hunch.

About Ida B. Wells

Ida was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, just a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation declared them free. Her parents prioritized her education. But when she was only 16, her parents and a sibling died during a yellow fever outbreak. As a teenager, she was left to care for her younger siblings, which she did by lying about her age and getting a job as a teacher.

Although Ida was always familiar with racism and discrimination, her outrage turned to activism after she moved to Tennessee and was confronted with blatant cruelty and injustice, including segregation laws and unequal education.

By the 1890s, Ida focused on the injustice and frequency of lynchings throughout the country, including the brutal killing of her friend in Memphis. To bring attention to the brutality of American society, Ida frequently published articles and spoke publicly – in the U.S. and Europe. She was deeply committed to shining a light on the issues Black Americans faced every day. Her words represented a critical time for Black empowerment and the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.

“I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said.”

Read more about Ida B. Wells:

Ida B. Wells in the Archives

Since we’re always looking for our ancestors in the archives, we did a little digging for Ida. And not surprisingly, many of her published articles and pamphlets are available online, including several sources at the Library of Congress.

In addition, we found Ida at various stages of her life and family in U.S. Census records. In 1870, just 5 years after the Civil War, Ida lived with her parents, James and Lizzie Wells, and three younger siblings. James Wells was able to read, but indicated he couldn’t write. Ida had already started school. Notably, a mark indicates she was unable to write, but it’s crossed out. She was only six, so we might be reading too much into this.

By 1880, Ida and her siblings had lost their parents to yellow fever. Ida was the head of household at age 17. She worked as a teacher to support the family.

In 1920, Ida was living in Chicago with her husband, Ferdinand Barnett, and a few of their children, ages 15 and older. At the time, the family lived at their now historic landmark address, 3624 Grand Boulevard (now 3624 S. Martin Luther King Dr).

Check out some of the images of Ida B. Wells in the archives (click the image for a closer look):

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