Her newspaper office was destroyed by a mob; she was repeatedly threated, often in the news media. But Ida Wells remained undaunted in her efforts to publicize the truth about racial discrimination, particularly lynchings of innocent Black men.
Born a slave in 1862, Wells was an outspoken critic of injustice; when she was 24 she wrote an article on women’s rights, saying “I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge.”
When she was ordered to give up her reserved seat on train because of her race, Wells turned her attention to the plight of Black citizens, writing magazine and newspaper articles exposing Southern Jim Crow policies. Her criticism of the conditions in Black schools in Memphis led to her being fired from a teaching position she had held for 7 years.
Wells began publishing pamphlets and articles exposing the practice of lynching–a practice that many whites at the time considered important in preserving the social order. In her 1892 pamphlet, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases”, she published her research on the practice, and decrying the growing trend by Southern states of passing laws or amending constitutions to disenfranchise most Black people and many poor White people through use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other devices. She backed her assertions from data gathered by reports in White-owned newspapers.
Wells’ publicity reached a wider audience who had not been aware of how common lynchings were at the time. She traveled abroad and received considerable press coverage. Stateside, the accolades were heavily mixed with condemnation, and not only in the Southern press. The New York Times called her “a slanderous and nasty-minded Mulatress.” But her publicity achieved some of its goals–some British textile manufacturers imposed a temporary boycott on Southern cotton that pressured southern businessmen to condemn the practice of lynching publicly.
Wells would spend the rest of her life crusading against racism and for women’s suffrage. She remained outspoken, ruffling plenty of feathers. Numerous leaders, Black and White, felt that she was too radical. But Frederick Douglass praised her work, writing “You have done your people and mine a service. …What a revelation of existing conditions your writing has been for me.”