Two Voices, Two Views Secure a Crusader's Legacy

When Ida B. Wells-Barnett died in 1931, after a life spent in the trenches of the battle on behalf of African Americans and women, many of her courageous efforts to expose the epidemic lynching of blacks at the turn of the twentieth century went largely unheralded. By then her groundbreaking work had been eclipsed by the fetes of feminists and black luminaries alike who quietly benefited from her work.

In 1970, nearly four decades after her death, Wells-Barnett's daughter, the late Alfreda Duster, did her part to restore her mother's rightful place in the annals of history with the publication of Crusade for Justice, the autobiography that Wells-Barnett had begun several years before. Published by the University of Chicago Press under the guidance of the recently-deceased John Hope Franklin, the book inspired renewed interest in this larger-than-life figure who actually just stood five-feet tall.

However, it took nearly four more decades before scholars built on this essential work, taking stock of a woman who during the height of her anti-lynching crusade was celebrated far and wide by the likes of Frederick Douglass. Within the past year, two eagerly-awaited biographies have been published that finally insert Ida B. Wells-Barnett into the foreground of American history.

First came Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings, author of several works, including When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. In this biography of Wells-Barnett, Giddings gives us the most definitive account yet of the journalist who, under the pen name "Iola" transformed the grotesque instances of lynching of blacks from an unpunished American pasttime to the international disgrace and barbaric crime that it was.

Wells-Barnett, a product of Victorian-era patriarchy, nonetheless challenged white and male supremacy with her defiant and uncompromising campaign for justice. And throughout her life she managed to juggle her consuming career as a journalist, orator and civic activist with marriage and motherhood.

In a detailed and poignant account that spans Wells-Barnett's remarkable life, Giddings begins by settling a score for her subject by naming many of her legendary contemporaries-including Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Church Terrell and Walter White-who in accounts written during her lifetime helped keep Wells-Barnett on the margins of history.

"Even books about lynching published in the 1920s and 1930s, including Walter White's Rope and Faggot and Arthur Raper's The Tragedy of Lynching-two widely cited reference texts on the subject-failed to mention Wells-Barnett," writes Giddings. She adds that several NAACP documents about the history of the anti-lynching movement give Wells-Barnett little if any credit. "Subsequently, the NAACP marginalized Wells-Barnett's contributions, even while it adopted her strategies and perspectives."

Giddings' absorbing and meticulous 659-page work is as much a record of Wells-Barnett's incomparable crusade for black and women's rights as it is a compelling history of racial and gender politics during the course of her life. Time and again, Giddings introduces women in journalism, politics, and the like whose names and deeds were also obscured by the double-bind of race and gender.

Giddings paints a vivid portrait of Wells-Barnett's birthplace, Holly Springs, Mississippi, a town of many skilled blacks, among them her father, who was a carpenter. There, amid whites who were more paternal than violent, she was born into slavery in 1862 and raised against the backdrop of the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction.

From Holly Springs, the site of the regional Freedman's Bureau, young Ida witnessed the stunning rise of former slaves to unimaginable heights. In 1872, when she was ten, Hiram Revels, an AME minister and Holly Springs resident, become the first black U.S. Senator when he filled the unexpired term of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. James Hill, a family friend born two miles from Holly Springs, served as Mississippi's secretary of state from 1872 to 1878.

Elsewhere in the state, forty African Americans were in Mississippi's Reconstruction legislature, including Blanche Kelso Bruce, a member of the U.S. Senate; John R. Lynch, the Speaker of the House; and A.K. Davis, the state's lieutenant governor. Giddings places Wells-Barnett in the vortex of the period, providing a panoramic view of the events, people and ideas that informed her worldview, sense of possibility, and future activism.

For a more distilled account of Wells-Barnett's work with less historical nuance, To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells-Barnett by Mia Bay, author of The Black Image in the White Mind. While far less ambitious than Giddings's, Bay's book manages to be a useful primer on Wells-Barnett's activist life and work, particularly for those who are less familiar with her achievements.

Like Giddings, Bay points out how Wells-Barnett, by the end of her life, had become a victim of gender bias and the ways in which her edgy personality was magnified by gender.

Both books trace the extraordinary arc of Wells-Barnett's upbringing in Holly Springs, the tragic loss in 1878 of her parents and siblings to yellow fever; the sixteen-year-old orphan's noble struggle to help raise her surviving siblings on her teacher's wages; her move to Memphis at age eighteen; her successful discrimination lawsuit against a railway company; her discovery, by the age of twenty, of the pen as a weapon against racial and gender injustice and her rise to international fame as a journalist, orator and civic organizer.

We witness the rifts, slights and alienation that by the end of her life seem to have taken their toll on a warrior who nonetheless continued to fight. Her landslide defeat as candidate for president of the National Association for Colored Women to Mary McLeod Bethune in 1924 was followed by other campaigns, most notably an unsuccessful run for an Illinois state senate seat in 1930.

Before her sudden death in 1931 at age 68, Wells-Barnett expressed regret that her pioneering anti-lynching efforts during a pivotal period in history had been all but forgotten. Thanks to her daughter's devoted work and now the addition of these two important biographies, Wells-Barnett can rest assured that her legacy is fittingly secured.


Tags: african-american, feminism, ida wells-barnett, race, social justice, social struggles, women

    • Pamela Newkirk
    • Pamela Newkirk is professor of journalism at New York University and the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, which won the prestigious National Press Club Arthur Rouse Award for Media Criticism. She is also editor of Letters from Black America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Beacon Press), and A ...

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