In 1887, 68 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Alabama, Ida B. Wells rejected racial segregation, refusing to sit in the “colored only” section of a train car. Born on the cusp of emancipation in Mississippi on June 16, 1862, Ida B. Wells was a journalist, educator, activist, and cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A bona-fide badass long before the term was part of our cultural lexicon, she was a pioneer in the fight for civil and women’s rights.
Wells began her career as a teacher at age 14, and shortly after that, moved to Tennessee in the 1880s. But by 1891, her activist heart had grown, and she turned to journalism, writing for the Memphis Free Speech. In 1892, following a wave of lynching that left three of her friends brutally murdered, Wells began investigating the motives white people cited as justification for lynching black men, women, and children across the US. She published her findings in pamphlets and in newspapers, marking the beginning of her anti-lynching campaign. Through investigative journalism, she debunked the myths and prejudices white folks concocted about black men. After going public with her findings that white men killed black men en mass not as retribution for violent crimes, but—surprise! —because they wanted to reassert white supremacy, she became a famed investigative journalist, and was first black American woman to become a paid correspondant for a white paper.
She began traveling across the country to give lectures and organize anti-lynching societies. She moved to Chicago in 1985 and got married to Ferdinand L. Barnett, officially adopting the last name Wells-Barnett (although most folks still refer to her by her maiden name). In Chicago, she became very active in the suffrage movement, and fought for black women’s rights, serving as the secretary of the National Afro-American Council from 1982 to 1902. In 1909, along with other notable figures, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Wells co-founded the NAACP. However, due to some disagreements amongst the original members, her name was excluded from the list of founders. Wells published her autobiography, Crusade For Justice, in 1928. She died a few years later in 1931, having spent the last 30 years of her life working to improve urban living conditions for the black community in Chicago.
Here are some photos and quotes to honor her legacy:
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
"I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap."
"Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so."
"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."
“Treat the world well. It was not given to you by your parents but lent to you by your children.”
"There must always be a remedy for wrong and injustice, if we only know how to find it.”
"The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”
"What becomes a crime deserving capital punishment when the tables are turned is a matter of small moment when the negro woman is the accusing party."
"If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service."
"Virtue knows no color."
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Cricket Epstein is BUST's editorial intern. She writes about feminism, films, witches, and all things awesome (and terrible). She is currently working on a health and wellness website and podcast, to be launched in the near future. You can follow her on instagram @t0tally_buggin and at her poorly maintained doodlegram @poorly_drawn_puns.