The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader

The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader


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The broadest and most comprehensive collection of writings available by an early civil and women’s rights pioneer

Seventy-one years before Rosa Parks’s courageous act of resistance, police dragged a young black journalist named Ida B. Wells off a train for refusing to give up her seat. The experience shaped Wells’s career, and—when hate crimes touched her life personally—she mounted what was to become her life’s work: an anti-lynching crusade that captured international attention.

This volume covers the entire scope of Wells’s remarkable career, collecting her early writings, articles exposing the horrors of lynching, essays from her travels abroad, and her later journalism. The Light of Truth is both an invaluable resource for study and a testament to Wells’s long career as a civil rights activist.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143106821
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/25/2014
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 106,203
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She grew up to be a journalist who fought to expose the injustice of lynching through her writing, lecturing, and political activism.

Mia Bay is Professor of History at Rutgers University and Director of the Rutgers Center for Race and Ethnicity. She lives in New York City.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

What Is an African American Classic?

I have long nurtured a deep and abiding affection for the Penguin Classics, at least since I was an undergraduate at Yale. I used to imagine that my attraction for these books—grouped together, as a set, in some independent bookstores when I was a student, and perhaps even in some today—stemmed from the fact that my first-grade classmates, for some reason that I can’t recall, were required to dress as penguins in our annual all-school pageant, and perform a collective side-to-side motion that our misguided teacher thought she could choreograph into something meant to pass for a “dance.” Piedmont, West Virginia, in 1956, was a very long way from Penguin Nation, wherever that was supposed to be! But penguins we were determined to be, and we did our level best to avoid wounding each other with our orange-colored cardboard beaks while stomping out of rhythm in our matching orange, veined webbed feet. The whole scene was madness, one never to be repeated at the Davis Free School. But I never stopped loving penguins. And I have never stopped loving the very audacity of the idea of the Penguin Classics, an affordable, accessible library of the most important and compelling texts in the history of civilization, their black-and-white spines and covers and uniform type giving each text a comfortable, familiar feel, as if we have encountered it, or its cousins, before. I think of the Penguin Classics as the very best and most compelling in human thought, an Alexandrian library in paperback, enclosed in black and white.

I still gravitate to the Penguin Classics when killing time in an airport bookstore, deferring the slow torture of the security lines. Sometimes I even purchase two or three, fantasizing that I can speed-read one of the shorter titles, then make a dent in the longer one, vainly attempting to fill the holes in the liberal arts education that our degrees suggest we have, over the course of a plane ride! Mark Twain once quipped that a classic is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” and perhaps that applies to my airport purchasing habits. For my generation, these titles in the Penguin Classics form the canon—the canon of the texts that a truly well-educated person should have read, and read carefully and closely, at least once. For years I rued the absence of texts by black authors in this series, and longed to be able to make even a small contribution to the diversification of this astonishingly universal list. I watched with great pleasure as titles by African American and African authors began to appear, some two dozen over the past several years. So when Elda Rotor approached me about editing a series of African American classics and collections for Penguin’s Portable Series, I eagerly accepted.

Thinking about the titles appropriate for inclusion in these series led me, inevitably, to think about what, for me, constitutes a “classic.” And thinking about this led me, in turn, to the wealth of reflections on what defines a work of literature or philosophy somehow speaking to the human condition beyond time and place, a work somehow endlessly compelling, generation upon generation, a work whose author we don’t have to look like to identify with, to feel at one with, as we find ourselves transported through the magic of a textual time machine; a work that refracts the image of ourselves that we project onto it, regardless of our ethnicity, our gender, our time, our place. This is what centuries of scholars and writers have meant when they use the word classic, and—despite all that we know about the complex intersubjectivity of the production of meaning in the wondrous exchange between a reader and a text—it remains true that classic texts, even in the most conventional, conservative sense of the word classic, do exist, and these books will continue to be read long after the generation the text reflects and defines, the generation of readers contemporary with the text’s author, is dead and gone. Classic texts speak from their authors’ graves, in their names, in their voices. As Italo Calvino once remarked, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Faulkner put this idea in an interesting way: “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means, and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” That, I am certain, must be the desire of every writer. But what about the reader? What makes a book a classic to a reader? Here, perhaps, Hemingway said it best: “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you, and afterwards it belongs to you, the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”

I have been reading black literature since I was fifteen, yanked into the dark discursive universe by an Episcopal priest at a church camp near my home in West Virginia in August 1965, during the terrifying days of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. Eventually, by fits and starts, studying the literature written by black authors became my avocation; ultimately, it has become my vocation. And, in my own way, I have tried to be an evangelist for it, to a readership larger than my own people, people who, as it were, look like these texts. Here, I am reminded of something W. S. Merwin said about the books he most loved: “Perhaps a classic is a work that one imagines should be common knowledge, but more and more often isn’t.” I would say, of African and African American literature, that perhaps classic works by black writers are works that one imagines should be common knowledge among the broadest possible readership but that less and less are, as the teaching of reading to understand how words can create the worlds into which books can transport us yields to classroom instruction geared toward passing a state-authorized standardized exam. All literary texts suffer from this wrongheaded approach to teaching, mind you; but it especially affects texts by people of color, and texts by women—texts still struggling, despite enormous gains over the last twenty years, to gain a solid foothold in anthologies and syllabi. For every anthology, every syllabus, every publishing series such as the Penguin Classics constitutes a distinct “canon,” an implicit definition of all that is essential for a truly educated person to read.

James Baldwin, who has pride of place in my personal canon of African American authors since it was one of his books that that Episcopal priest gave me to read in that dreadful summer of 1965, argued that “the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.” But surely Baldwin would have agreed with E. M. Forster that the books that we remember, the books that have truly influenced us, are those that “have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet ourselves.” Excavating the known is a worthy goal of the writer as cultural archaeologist; yet, at the same time, so is unveiling the unknown, the unarticulated yet shared experience of the colorless things that make us human: “something we have always known (or thought we knew),” as Calvino puts it, “but without knowing that this author said it first.” We might think of the difference between Forster and Baldwin, on the one hand, and Calvino, on the other, as the difference between an author representing what has happened (Forster, Baldwin) in the history of a people whose stories, whose very history itself, has long been suppressed, and what could have happened (Calvino) in the atemporal realm of art. This is an important distinction when thinking about the nature of an African American classic—rather, when thinking about the nature of the texts that constitute the African American literary tradition or, for that matter, the texts in any under-read tradition.

One of James Baldwin’s most memorable essays, a subtle meditation on sexual preference, race, and gender, is entitled “Here Be Dragons.” So much of traditional African American literature, even fiction and poetry—ostensibly at least once removed from direct statement—was meant to deal a fatal blow to the dragon of racism. For black writers since the eighteenth-century beginnings of the tradition, literature has been one more weapon—a very important weapon, mind you, but still one weapon among many—in the arsenal black people have drawn upon to fight against antiblack racism and for their equal rights before the law. Ted Joans, the black surrealist poet, called this sort of literature from the sixties’ Black Arts movement “hand grenade poems.” Of what possible use are the niceties of figuration when one must slay a dragon? I can hear you say, give me the blunt weapon anytime! Problem is, it is more difficult than some writers seem to think to slay a dragon with a poem or a novel. Social problems persist; literature too tied to addressing those social problems tends to enter the historical archives, leaving the realm of the literary. Let me state bluntly what should be obvious: Writers are read for how they write, not what they write about.

Frederick Douglass—for this generation of readers one of the most widely read writers—reflected on this matter even in the midst of one of his most fiery speeches addressing the ironies of the sons and daughters of slaves celebrating the Fourth of July while slavery continued unabated. In his now-classic essay “What Is to the Slave the Fourth of July” (1852), Douglass argued that an immediate, almost transparent form of discourse was demanded of black writers by the heated temper of the times, a discourse with an immediate end in mind: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. . . . a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” Above all else, Douglass concludes, the rhetoric of the literature created by African Americans must, of necessity, be a purposeful rhetoric, its ends targeted at attacking the evils that afflict black people: “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.” And perhaps this was so; nevertheless, we read Douglass’s writings today in literature classes not so much for their content but to understand, and marvel at, his sublime mastery of words, words—to paraphrase Calvino—that never finish saying what it is they have to say, not because of their “message,” but because of the language in which that message is inextricably enfolded.

There are as many ways to define a classic in the African American tradition as there are in any other tradition, and these ways are legion. So many essays have been published entitled “What Is a Classic?” that they could fill several large anthologies. And while no one can say explicitly why generations of readers return to read certain texts, just about everyone can agree that making a best-seller list in one’s lifetime is most certainly not an index of fame or influence over time; the longevity of one’s readership—of books about which one says, “I am rereading,” as Calvino puts it—on the other hand, most certainly is. So, the size of one’s readership (through library use, Internet access, and sales) cumulatively is an interesting factor to consider; and because of series such as the Penguin Classics, we can gain a sense, for our purposes, of those texts written by authors in previous generations that have sustained sales—mostly for classroom use—long after their authors were dead.

There can be little doubt that Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), by W. E. B. Du Bois, and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), by Zora Neale Hurston, are the three most classic of the black classics—again, as measured by consumption—while Langston Hughes’s poetry, though not purchased as books in these large numbers, is accessed through the Internet as frequently as that of any other American poet, and indeed profoundly more so than most. Within Penguin’s Portable Series list, the most popular individual titles, excluding Douglass’s first slave narrative and Du Bois’s Souls, are:

Up from Slavery (1903), Booker T. Washington

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), James Weldon Johnson

God’s Trombones (1926), James Weldon Johnson

Passing (1929), Nella Larsen

The Marrow of Tradition (1898), Charles W. Chesnutt

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs

The Interesting Narrative (1789), Olaudah Equiano

The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Charles W. Chesnutt

My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Frederick Douglass

Quicksand (1928), Nella Larsen

These titles form a canon of classics of African American literature, judged by classroom readership. If we add Jean Toomer’s novel Cane (1922), arguably the first work of African American modernism, along with Douglass’s first narrative, Du Bois’s The Souls, and Hurston’s Their Eyes, we would most certainly have included many of the touchstones of black literature published before 1940, when Richard Wright published Native Son.

Every teacher’s syllabus constitutes a canon of sorts, and I teach these texts and a few others as the classics of the black canon. Why these particular texts? I can think of two reasons: First, these texts signify or riff upon each other, repeating, borrowing, and extending metaphors book to book, generation to generation. To take just a few examples, Equiano’s eighteenth-century use of the trope of the talking book (an image found, remarkably, in five slave narratives published between 1770 and 1811) becomes, with Frederick Douglass, the representation of the quest for freedom as, necessarily, the quest for literacy, for a freedom larger than physical manumission; we might think of this as the representation of metaphysical manumission, of freedom and literacy—the literacy of great literature—inextricably intertwined. Douglass transformed the metaphor of the talking book into the trope of chiasmus, a repetition with a stinging reversal: “You have seen how a man becomes a slave, you will see how a slave becomes a man.” Du Bois, with Douglass very much on his mind, transmuted chiasmus a half century later into the metaphor of duality or double consciousness, a necessary condition of living one’s life, as he memorably put it, behind a “veil.”

Du Bois’s metaphor has a powerful legacy in twentieth-century black fiction: James Weldon Johnson, in Ex-Coloured Man, literalizes the trope of double consciousness by depicting as his protagonist a man who, at will, can occupy two distinct racial spaces, one black, one white, and who moves seamlessly, if ruefully, between them; Toomer’s Cane takes Du Bois’s metaphor of duality for the inevitably split consciousness that every Negro must feel living in a country in which her or his status as a citizen is liminal at best, or has been erased at worst, and makes of this the metaphor for the human condition itself under modernity, a tellingly bold rhetorical gesture—one designed to make the Negro the metaphor of the human condition. And Hurston, in Their Eyes, extends Toomer’s revision even further, depicting a character who can gain her voice only once she can name this condition of duality or double consciousness and then glide gracefully and lyrically between her two selves, an “inside” self and an “outside” one.

More recently, Alice Walker, in The Color Purple, signifies upon two aspects of the narrative strategy of Their Eyes: First, she revisits the theme of a young black woman finding her voice, depicting a protagonist who writes herself into being through letters addressed to God and to her sister, Nettie—letters that grow ever more sophisticated in their syntax and grammar and imagery as she comes to consciousness before our very eyes, letter to letter; and second, Walker riffs on Hurston’s use of a vernacular-inflected free indirect discourse to show that black English has the capacity to serve as the medium for narrating a novel through the black dialect that forms a most pliable and expansive language in Celie’s letters. Ralph Ellison makes Du Bois’s metaphor of the veil a trope of blindness and life underground for his protagonist in Invisible Man, a protagonist who, as he types the story of his life from a hole underground, writes himself into being in the first person (in contradistinction to Richard Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, whose reactive tale of fear and flight is told in the third person). Walker’s novel also riffs on Ellison’s claim for the revolutionary possibilities of writing the self into being, whereas Hurston’s protagonist, Janie, speaks herself into being. Ellison himself signified multiply upon Richard Wright’s Native Son, from the title to the use of the first-person bildungsroman to chart the coming to consciousness of a sensitive protagonist moving from blindness and an inability to do little more than react to his environment, to the insight gained by wresting control of his identity from social forces and strong individuals that would circumscribe and confine his life choices. Toni Morrison, master supernaturalist and perhaps the greatest black novelist of all, trumps Ellison’s trope of blindness by returning over and over to the possibilities and limits of insight within worlds confined or circumscribed not by supraforces (à la Wright) but by the confines of the imagination and the ironies of individual and family history, signifying upon Faulkner, Woolf, and Márquez in the process. And Ishmael Reed, the father of black postmodernism and what we might think of as the hip-hop novel, the tradition’s master parodist, signifies upon everybody and everything in the black literary tradition, from the slave narratives to the Harlem Renaissance to black nationalism and feminism.

This sort of literary signifying is what makes a literary tradition, well, a “tradition,” rather than a simple list of books whose authors happen to have been born in the same country, share the same gender, or would be identified by their peers as belonging to this ethnic group or that. What makes these books special—“classic”—however, is something else. Each text has the uncanny capacity to take the seemingly mundane details of the day-to-day African American experience of its time and transmute those details and the characters’ actions into something that transcends its ostensible subject’s time and place, its specificity. These texts reveal the human universal through the African American particular: All true art, all classics, do this; this is what “art” is, a revelation of that which makes each of us sublimely human, rendered in the minute details of the actions and thoughts and feelings of a compelling character embedded in a time and place. But as soon as we find ourselves turning to a text for its anthropological or sociological data, we have left the realm of art; we have reduced the complexity of fiction or poetry to an essay, and this is not what imaginative literature is for. Richard Wright, at his best, did this, as did his signifying disciple Ralph Ellison; Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday achieved this effect in music; Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden achieved it in the visual arts. And this is what Wole Soyinka does in his tragedies, what Toni Morrison does in her novels, what Derek Walcott does in his poetry. And while it is risky to name one’s contemporaries in a list such as this, I think that Rita Dove and Jamaica Kincaid achieve this effect as well, as do Colson Whitehead and Edwidge Danticat, in a younger generation. (There are other writers whom I would include in this group had I the space.) By delving ever so deeply into the particularity of the African and African American experience, these authors manage, somehow, to come out the other side, making the race or the gender of their characters almost translucent, less important than the fact that they stand as aspects of ourselves beyond race or gender or time or place, precisely in the same magical way that Hamlet never remains for long stuck as a prince in a court in Denmark.

Each classic black text reveals to us, uncannily, subtly, how the Black Experience is inscribed, inextricably and indelibly, in the human experience, and how the human experience takes one of its myriad forms in blackface, as it were. Together, such texts also demonstrate, implicitly, that African American culture is one of the world’s truly great and eternal cultures, as noble and as resplendent as any. And it is to publish such texts, written by African and African American authors, that Penguin has created this new series, which I have the pleasure of editing.



This book brings together the writings of Ida B. Wells, a remarkable African American journalist, reformer, and social critic. Born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, Wells arrived in the world only a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation, and grew up to be a prominent member of a vast generation of African Americans whose lives were forever changed not only by the Confederacy’s defeat but also by the turbulent postemancipation decades that followed. The nation’s great Reconstruction era experiment in racial democracy shaped Wells’s childhood, while the South’s turn toward disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, and vigilante violence was the scourge of her adult life and the major subject of her writing. Her work inspired death threats that drove her out of the South in 1892 and she ultimately resettled in Chicago, where she lived until her death in 1931.

Wells’s writings remain fascinating today because she was far more than a spectator to her changing times. Raised by ex-slave parents who taught her to do something when confronted with injustice, Wells confronted injustice daily, and wrote to expose the exploitation, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and racial violence that African Americans were subject to during her lifetime. Best known for her tireless crusade against lynching, Wells took on all forms of social injustice, and understood her anti-lynching campaign as an all-out assault on white supremacy. Toward the end of her life, she wrote an unfinished autobiography in which she described her life as a “crusade for justice,” and the articles and pamphlets collected here document the uncompromising brilliance she brought to her crusade.2

 • • • 

Who was Ida B. Wells? And what inspired her crusade for justice? The first of Elizabeth and James Wells’s eight children, Wells came into the world as slavery was coming to an end. Her parents welcomed emancipation with open arms, abandoning their former owner (who was also Jim Wells’s father) in favor of setting up their own household. Both parents were fortunate enough to emerge from slavery with marketable skills: Jim Wells was a carpenter and Elizabeth Wells was a cook, and together the couple were soon prosperous enough to entertain high ambitions for both themselves and their children.

Jim Wells was among the Reconstruction era’s black Republicans who managed to elect African American officials to both their state legislatures and the Congress, despite bitter opposition from the South’s white Democrats. He braved the vigilante violence to which the black voters in Mississippi, and most other Southern states, were often subjected when they attended political meetings, despite the anxieties such activities inspired in his wife. Lizzie Wells, as Elizabeth Wells was known, seems to have been supportive of her husband’s political commitments, but she was also understandably worried whenever he attended such meetings. Accordingly, Ida’s childhood memories included watching her mother anxiously “walking the floor at night when my father was out at a political meeting.”3

The Wellses sought education and autonomy for their family, as well as a brighter political future. They enrolled their children in a local missionary school, which Lizzie Wells herself also attended until she had learned to read the Bible. In addition, Lizzie Wells supplemented her children’s education at home, enriching their schoolwork with lessons in morals, manners, and housework, which made an enduring impression on Ida, who admired her mother for bringing up eight children “with strict discipline that many mothers with educational advantages could not have exceeded.”4

Sadly, Ida Wells would put such lessons to the test all too early. Her parents died in the yellow fever epidemic that swept the Mississippi Valley in the summer of 1878, which also killed her youngest brother, Stanley. Only sixteen at the time, Ida was visiting her grandparents in rural Mississippi when she heard the tragic news. She rushed back to Holly Springs to find that Jim Wells’s Masonic brothers were planning to tend to the Wellses’ orphaned children by splitting them up among several different families. Ida would not have it. “My parents [would] turn in their graves to know their children had been scattered,” she told them, volunteering to take care of the children herself, if the Masons would help her find work.5

That fall, Ida, who had been a “butterfly school girl” before her parents’ death, had her “dresses lengthened” and took a job teaching elementary school.6 Too young for the job, Ida found it challenging. She had not even finished normal school (as high school was then known) and had no work experience other than teaching Sunday School, so the only jobs she could get as she began her teaching career were positions teaching elementary school in isolated rural areas, to which she traveled by mule, returning home only on the weekend.

Ida would always remember herself as feeling wholly inadequate during her years teaching in country schools. Still a teenager, she scrambled to prepare lessons and complete her own education by reading at night, and questioned whether she could meet the needs of the rural freedpeople in the communities where she taught. Not only the children she taught, she quickly realized, but their parents too “needed the guidance of everyday life and that the leaders, the preachers were not giving them this help. They would come to me with their problems because I, as their teacher, should have been their leader. But I knew nothing of life but what I had read.”7

Ida would never like teaching, perhaps because she found this early experience so daunting. But she made the best of it, polishing her skills and eventually taking a test that would allow her to get a more lucrative teaching job in the city schools of Memphis, Tennessee. Moreover, once she moved to Memphis with her two youngest sisters in tow—her brothers having grown old enough to support themselves—she was also able to put her self-education to more satisfying use, by writing for local newspapers.

In journalism, Wells found her vocation. Writing allowed her to address her race not as a poorly qualified elementary schoolteacher but as herself: an opinionated young black woman. She wrote under the pen name Iola, choosing a name with a rural twang to reflect her origins in small-town Mississippi, and wrote for an audience not unlike the rural black communities in which she had so recently taught. As Iola, she dedicated herself to writing “in a plain common sense way on the things which concerned our people.”8

Included in chapter I of this volume, her early writings show that Wells believed African Americans had a wide range of concerns. Writing in an age when female journalists often wrote primarily on subjects of special interest to women—and often published their articles within the confines of their newspaper’s “Women’s Department”—Wells acknowledged no such limitations in her choice of subjects. Single and in her twenties, Wells was interested in women’s issues and aspirations, and wrote about them in articles with titles such as “Woman’s Mission,” “The Model Woman: A Pen Picture of the Typical Southern Girl,” and “Our Women.” But women were not Wells’s primary subject. Most of her articles took up the major political and social questions of her day, presenting her thoughts on black leadership, party politics, segregation laws, African emigration, and racial violence. Highly opinionated and committed to racial justice, Wells was a crusading journalist from the start. Her very first article, a now-lost piece that appeared in a local Baptist newspaper, the Living Way, chronicled her experience of being thrown out of the “ladies’ car” on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad in September 1883.

Her ill-fated journey took place at a time when the segregated world of the Jim Crow South was still taking shape, and the railroad’s best accommodations were still set aside for ladies rather than “whites only.” These cars were a legacy of the slavery era, when free black travelers were neither common nor assertive enough to make claims on the ladies’ cars, which typically accommodated white women travelers and their families. Southern railroad regulations would have to change before they could successfully confine middle-class black women such as Wells to the substandard accommodations typically offered to blacks. By 1883, such changes were under way. Tennessee had adopted a separate-coach law mandating colored cars for blacks, and while there was no designated colored car on Wells’s train, its conductor felt she had no place in the ladies’ car, and told her to move to the train’s smoking car. Wells resisted, hanging on to her seat and biting the conductor’s hand when he tried to force the issue. And she remained in her seat until the conductor came back with two other men, who picked her up and carried her out of the car, at which point Wells got off the train rather than accepting a seat in the smoking car. Disheveled but still defiant, she rode home by wagon and promptly sued the railroad. Wells won her initial suit, but her quest to ride in the ladies’ car was ultimately rebuffed in Tennessee’s Supreme Court, which challenged Wells’s unladylike “persistence.”9

Discouraged but not deterred, Wells continued to publicly protest transportation segregation and other forms of racial discrimination. She received no compensation for her early articles for the Living Way, but by the late 1880s, Wells was writing for pay, and publishing what she wrote in black newspapers across the country. Moreover, her spirited editorials and articles were widely reprinted and earned her the nickname “Iola, the Princess of the Press.” By 1889, her growing reputation allowed her to move into the news business full time, becoming editor and publisher as well as writer. That year, she became co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, the city’s black newspaper. But in the decades to come it was Wells’s career as a journalist and activist, rather than her impressive accomplishments as a businesswoman, that brought her to worldwide attention.


The early 1890s saw Wells’s willingness to take on racial violence, and her brilliant analysis of the social functions of racial violence, propel her to national and international renown. Like her move toward journalism, Wells’s anti-lynching campaign took shape around events she experienced personally: namely, a brutal lynching that rocked black Memphis not long after she took the helm at Free Speech. In the second week of March 1892, three black businessmen, including a man named Thomas Moss who was one of Wells’s closest friends, were first arrested and then dragged out of the county jail and shot. Their arrest followed a series of altercations between blacks and whites in a mixed neighborhood known as the Curve. First, a group of black and white boys squabbled over a game of marbles. Later, their parents joined in—after the father of one of the white boys personally whipped a victorious black player, and black men gathered to protest the whipping. Eventually, the dispute moved into People’s Grocery Store, an African American–owned joint-stock grocery store where Memphis blacks congregated. That night, a group of armed white men stormed the store and were met with gunfire from black men who had assembled to guard the place. Three white men were wounded before the store’s protectors and patrons fled. Spurred by reports of a massive black uprising, a white mob gathered the next day, looted the store, terrorized the black inhabitants of the Curve, and dragged more than thirty black men off to jail.

Among them were the three men who were taken out of the jail and lynched four days later. Two of the men, Thomas Moss and Calvin McDowell, were proprietors of People’s Grocery Store, while Will Stewart worked there as a clerk. All three were otherwise largely blameless in the conflict. None had fired shots; indeed, Thomas Moss was not even present during the shootout in the store. Rather, his offense, and those of McDowell and Stewart, seems to have been the success of the store, which competed directly with a white-owned store across the street.

The “lynching at the Curve,” as Wells called it, was the first lynching to occur in Memphis, and it made an indelible impression on her. In Natchez selling subscriptions to Free Speech when the lynching occurred, Wells witnessed none of the violence. But she returned to find her dear friend Tommie Moss dead and blacks fleeing Memphis. For her, the events in Memphis were not only her first personal experience of the realities of white violence in the post-Reconstruction South but a revelation into the logic of white supremacy. Prior to the murders in Memphis, Wells, like “many another person who had read of lynching in the South,” had not questioned conventional accounts of lynching. She had thought that “although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order,” the motives behind it were defensible—“unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to lynching . . . perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.” But events in Memphis opened her “eyes to what lynching really was.”10 The Memphis victims were not accused of rape or any other crime, and their deaths made Wells suspect that lynching might be little more than “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘the nigger down.’”11

Wells’s suspicions were confirmed when she began to research every lynching that she read about. What happened in Memphis was not unusual, she found: fully two-thirds of the victims of lynch mobs were never even accused of rape. Moreover, of those who were, they often accused on the flimsiest of evidence. Wells’s discoveries about lynching enraged her, inspiring her to run a series of anti-lynching editorials in Free Speech castigating white Memphis.

Writing at a time when rape was supposedly on the rise in the South—Harper’s Weekly labeled it the “new Negro Crime”—Wells took on the charge that white Southerners most often invoked rape as unassailable justification for lynching.12 Not only had her research revealed to her that most lynchings occurred in the absence of any accusations of rape, it also called into question many of the cases in which rape was alleged. All too often, the black men accused of rape were guilty of no other crime than having a sexual relationship with a white woman. Many of the cries of rape came only after clandestine interracial relationships were exposed. Wells was not the first African American to doubt the allegations of rape that accompanied many lynchings, but she was one of the very first to voice her doubts publicly. Writing in a May 21, 1892, editorial in Free Speech, she challenged white Southern interpretations of lynching in no uncertain terms. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the threadbare old lie that Negroes rape white women,” she wrote. “If Southern men are not careful, they will over reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will be reached which will then be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”13

Wells was away when her editorial came out, which turned out to be fortunate. With its publication, a white mob descended on the offices of Free Speech, shutting it down permanently. Although Wells was not immediately identified as the author of the editorial, which was not signed, its author was threatened with death and dismemberment. The editors of one white Memphis paper, who assumed the author of the editorial was a man, threatened to tie “the wretch who has uttered these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison Sts., brand him with a hot iron, and perform on him a surgical operation with a pair of shears.” Wells’s gender did not protect her once her authorship became known. Instead, local whites renewed and revised this threat by letting Wells know that if she returned “they would bleed my face and hang me in front of the court house.”14

Such threats kept Wells from ever returning to Memphis, but they did not silence her. Exiled from the South, Wells devoted herself to exposing the truth about lynching. Becoming a public speaker for the first time, she toured the Northern United States and Great Britain testifying about her experiences in Memphis, and the facts she had gathered about lynching. A poised and attractive young woman who sometimes spoke through tears, Wells was a powerful speaker. She testified on the events that led her to exile, including heart-wrenching details such as a description of the loss suffered by the “baby daughter of Tom Moss,” who although “too young to express how she misses her father, toddles to the wardrobe, seizes the legs of his letter-carrier uniform, hugs and kisses them with evident delight and stretches her little hands to be taken up into arms that will nevermore clasp his daughter’s form.”15 But, while Wells sought the sympathy of her audience, she did not confine herself to pathos.

Instead, she expanded on the accusations in her editorial, exposing the rape myth that white Southerners used to justify lynching by challenging the connection between the two. Naming specific white women, and specific cases, she documented the consensual nature of interracial liaisons for which black men had been lynched, concluding “white men lynch the offending Afro-American, not because he is a despoiler of women, but because he succumbs to the smiles of white women.”16 She also presented evidence on the many lynchings for which rape was not even invoked as justification and underscored that Southern whites victimized black women as well as men by imposing no punishment whatsoever on white men who assaulted black women.

By exposing the rape myth used to justify lynching, Wells recast lynching as “a lesson of subordination” that had little to do with sex or sexual assaults. A terrifying and extralegal form of racial subjugation, it supplemented the disenfranchisement, legal disabilities, and economic exploitation that white Southerners used to enforce “their oft-repeated slogan: ‘This is a white man’s country, and the white man must rule.’”17

Wells’s incisive analysis of lynching turned her anti-lynching crusade into an attack on the color line. In addition to demystifying the rape myth, her 1890s lectures and writings contained a stinging critique of conditions in the South. A witness to the collapse of Reconstruction, Wells deplored the repeal of the Reconstruction-era civil rights acts, and the disenfranchisement of African Americans that followed. She also decried the passage of “separate car” state laws requiring segregated coaches on the railroads, and advised Southern blacks to boycott Jim Crow travel in an effort to force the repeal of these laws. Lynching, she emphasized, was a product of social and legal disabilities that white Southerners imposed on blacks, and would not be eradicated until black Southerners gained their rights.

Wells’s anti-lynching campaign made her a celebrity and defined anti-lynching as a cause. In addition to speaking before packed houses in both America and England, Wells published her anti-lynching lectures in the pamphlets Southern Horrors: The Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and A Red Record (1894), which are included in this volume.

Wells’s writings and lectures were generally well received among blacks, who tended to endorse her analysis of lynching. Her African American supporters included black America’s senior statesman, Frederick Douglass, who wrote prefaces for a number of her anti-lynching pamphlets, and a broad cross section of African American women, who attended her lectures and lent their support to her cause.

Some of New York’s most influential and elite black women organized and attended her first public lecture, which took place in New York in the spring of 1892, and her work was subsequently feted at black women’s clubs across the Northeast. In 1895, her supporters rallied together, forming the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), after Wells was the subject of a defamatory public letter written by a white Mississippi editor. The insult inspired club women across the nation to come together to defend Wells and all their members from the “base aspersions . . . [that] blight and dwarf the spirit of Negro women.”18

Whites, by contrast, were far more mixed in their responses to Wells. In the South, she continued to receive viciously negative press long after she left the region—coverage that publicized, though certainly did not promote, her anti-lynching campaign. But she encountered more sympathetic whites in the North, and especially in Britain, where she lectured on two separate visits in 1893 and 1894. There she found allies among the British reform communities that had once supported the abolition of slavery, and were troubled by Wells’s account of the South.

Her activities in Britain are chronicled in chapter III of this volume, which contains a selection of the articles she published during her second, more extended visit to Britain. Her first visit had been cut short by a falling-out between her English backers, Catherine Impey and Isabella Fyvie Mayo. But when she returned to England in 1894, Wells managed to mobilize an anti-lynching movement among several influential British reformers, who founded and staffed an Anti-Lynching Committee that investigated and condemned lynchings, and even sponsored her fact-finding tour of the United States in 1895.

Lynching continued, but never as unopposed as it had been before Wells’s campaign. Wells and British reformers helped generate a more critical attitude in the North toward lynching, as well as some organized opposition. Moreover, anti-lynching became one of the central platforms of the black civil rights organizations that formed around the turn of the century, as did the fact-finding techniques that Wells pioneered to expose the truth about lynching. Organizations like the NAACP (1909) and the Urban League (1915) followed the lead established in Wells’s anti-lynching pamphlets of the 1890s, which investigated the facts behind lynching cases, and compiled detailed statistics on the incidence of lynching.

Other links between Wells and early civil rights organizations are not difficult to find. Wells was a founding member of the NAACP, as well as several other less-successful civil rights ventures that preceded it, such as the Niagara Movement and the Afro-American Council. However, Wells did not last long at the NAACP or any of the other major black organizations. Part of it might have been personal. In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand Barnett, a Chicago lawyer, and subsequently had four children with him. Thereafter, the challenges of marriage and children made it more difficult for Wells-Barnett (as she renamed herself) to sustain an activist life. Still, marriage brought no end to Wells-Barnett’s activism. Far from traditional in his gender politics, Ferdinand Barnett supported his wife’s work and did not expect her to stay at home. Instead, he hired household help and even took on the chore of preparing the family’s meals himself—having grown up cooking alongside his father, who was a chef. As a married woman, Wells-Barnett continued to work, write, and move in and out of political and social organizations.

A mother to two young sons by 1899, Wells-Barnett still managed to protest the lynching of Sam Hose in Georgia, even coming up with a fact-finding exposé despite the fact that her children kept her close to home, a feat that she achieved by hiring the services of a detective whose research exonerated Hose. Moreover, she also used the white-authored papers the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution to further illuminate Lynch Law in Georgia (1899). Both papers reported the deaths of Hose and the other black men in enthusiastic, almost pornographic detail, making Wells-Barnett’s case against mob violence for her. A year later, when Robert Charles was brutally lynched in New Orleans, Wells-Barnett was no freer to travel, and had no money to hire a detective. But she still managed to write a brilliant analysis of the events in New Orleans by once again mining the work of local white journalists for details about the case.

Moreover, events in Atlanta also inspired Wells-Barnett to publicly denounce Booker T. Washington, who was then widely celebrated by whites as the leader of black America. Wells-Barnett was an admirer of Washington’s self-help philosophy, but had long been troubled by his accommodationist stance on black civil rights and racial violence, and became more so in the aftermath of the Hose lynching. Traveling abroad when the violence took place, Washington was slow to issue any public statement on events in Georgia, and when he finally did so months later, it took the form of a mild-mannered letter that deplored lynchings as bad for both blacks and whites and counseled African Americans to repudiate the Negro rapist as a “beast in human form.”19 Outraged, Wells-Barnett denounced Washington in a “sassy” letter to the New York Age, which Washington’s friend T. Thomas Fortune refused to publish.20 That letter has not survived, but Wells-Barnett’s critique of Washington can be found in her 1904 essay “Booker T. Washington and His Critics” (in chapter V).

By 1904, Wells-Barnett was a mother of four young children, and had ever-fewer opportunities to travel or write. But she remained a tireless activist. Operating from Chicago after her marriage, she continued to monitor lynchings and other forms of racial injustice. She published anti-lynching articles in a number of mainstream national publications, such as the Arena and the Independent, and worked with radical black journalist William Monroe Trotter to revive the National Equal Rights League—a civil rights organization with Reconstruction-era roots that Wells-Barnett and Trotter envisioned as a radical alternative to the NAACP. But much of her twentieth-century activism had a distinctly local focus.

A lifelong supporter of voting rights for women, Wells-Barnett was an influential participant in the Illinois women’s suffrage movement, and helped organize Chicago’s female voters. After 1908, she also began working to provide jobs, guidance, and living accommodations for Chicago’s growing population of black Southern migrants, who were unwelcome at many of the city’s social service agencies. That year, she founded an organization called the Negro Fellowship League to support such migrants, which she led for more than a decade. During this time, she also worked as one the state’s first probation officers for several years, and used the league as a source of support and guidance for the parolees she supervised.

The World War I era, however, saw her venture out on fact-finding missions again. Her children were all but grown up, and Wells-Barnett was appalled by the wave of racial violence triggered by the war. She traveled to St. Louis to investigate the race riot there in 1917; she snuck into an Arkansas jail in 1919 to secure testimony from the seventy-nine black sharecroppers imprisoned in Helena, Arkansas, after they defended themselves against a group of armed white men who stormed their union meeting.

The East St. Louis Race Riot: The Greatest Outrage of the Century (1917) and The Arkansas Race Riot (1920), which are both included in this volume, were Wells-Barnett’s last pamphlet-length publications. The Negro Fellowship League folded in 1919, leaving Wells-Barnett with no organization to support her investigative publications. She spent the last decade of her life seeking new platforms for her work at a time when civil rights organization staffers were beginning to take over the jobs once performed by activist reformers such as Wells-Barnett.

The anti-lynching movement that Wells-Barnett founded remained very much alive, but it was led by the NAACP, which assembled black organizations across the country in an energetic but unsuccessful campaign to pass federal anti-lynching legislation in the early 1920s. Wells-Barnett lent her support to the campaign, but largely from the sidelines. James Weldon Johnson, general counsel for the NAACP, was feted for his organization’s “agitation” against lynching, while Wells-Barnett’s crusade was largely forgotten. Moreover, she was likewise marginal to the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which she was convinced had become little more than “a tail to the kite of the NAACP.”21 In 1924, she attempted to reassert her influence in the organization whose founding her own work had helped inspire by running for the presidency of the NACW. But with little record of recent activity in the organization, she was trounced by longtime club woman Mary McLeod Bethune, who won 658 of the 700 delegates’ votes.

Wells-Barnett’s last attempt to find a new organizational base for her leadership resulted in another landslide defeat. In 1930, she campaigned for a Senate seat in Illinois’s Third Senatorial District. Virtually unfunded, Wells-Barnett attracted few endorsements, and never made it past the primary, garnering only 752 of the more than 10,000 votes cast.

She died the following year, on March 14, 1931. After a brief illness, she succumbed quite suddenly to “uremic poisoning”—or what we would today call kidney failure. Sixty-eight years old, she remained an activist until the end, and left behind an autobiography that she never found the time to finish. Published by her daughter Alfreda Duster long after Wells-Barnett’s death, Crusade for Justice does not record her life past the year 1927. Instead, it ends, quite fittingly, in the middle of a chapter entitled “Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Liberty.”

Note on the Text

Although Wells was a prolific writer, many of her publications have not survived. A house fire in Chicago destroyed many of her personal papers, and there are no known copies of some of the nineteenth-century newspapers, such as the Living Way, that published some of her earliest articles. Moreover, Wells’s own paper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, is also lost in the historical record. Its office and presses were destroyed by the white mob that descended on the Free Press in 1892, and no copies of Wells’s newspaper have ever been located. However, copies of all of Wells’s pamphlets still exist, as do copies of her publications in white-owned magazines such as the Independent and the Arena, as well as the articles she published in prominent black newspapers such as the New York Age and the Chicago Defender. In addition, even some of Wells’s early writings for the Free Speech and other small newspapers have survived, because they were reprinted in other, larger newspapers such as the New York Age.

Scattered in different newspapers, church magazines, and collections of pamphlets, Wells’s writings have been impossible to read in anything approaching their entirety until now. This book offers a comprehensive collection of her surviving articles and pamphlets. I have omitted the purely informational notices that Wells posted in various newspapers regarding meetings of her Negro Fellowship League and other organizational matters; I have also left out a number of Wells’s published letters to the editors of various newspapers, which tend to contain somewhat abbreviated explanations of the current events they discuss, and can therefore be difficult for modern readers to follow. In addition, I have also made no attempt to include Wells’s surviving diaries, which have already been published in Miriam DeCosta-Willis’s splendid book The Memphis Diary of Ida. B. Wells (1995), nor her posthumous autobiography, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1991), which is also widely available.1

Readers of this text will notice that Wells recycled some of her writings, sometimes republishing identical chunks of text in two or more publications. The product of an era in which such recycling was common among journalists, Wells was more consistently focused on her message than on its format. Her work often contains lengthy excerpts from the writings of other journalists, and Lynch Law in Georgia (1899) features the full text of the report that Pinkerton detective Louis Lavin wrote on the Sam Hose lynching. I have retained Wells’s repetitions, as well as her pastiches of supporting documents, throughout this collection because they are characteristic of her work, and give careful readers insights into Wells’s one-woman protest tradition.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bay, Mia. To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.

Bederman, Gail. “Civilization, the Decline of Middle-Class Manliness, and Ida B. Wells’s Anti-Lynching Campaign (1892–94).” Radical History Review, no. 52 (December 21, 1992): 5–30.

Carby, Hazel V. “‘On the Threshold of Woman’s Era’: Lynching, Empire, and Sexuality in Black Feminist Theory.” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (October 1, 1985): 262–77.

Davidson, James West. “They Say”: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Davis, Simone W. “The ‘Weak Race’ and the Winchester: Political Voices in the Pamphlets of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 12.2 (1995): 77–97.

DeCosta-Willis, Miriam, ed. The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

Giddings, Paula J. Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. Reprint. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2009.

Goldsby, Jacqueline. A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Karcher, Carolyn. “Ida B. Wells and Her Allies Against Lynching: A Transnational Perspective.” Comparative American Studies 3, no. 2 (June 1, 2005): 131–51.

McMurry, Linda O. To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Schechter, Patricia A. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880–1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Silkey, Sarah L. “Redirecting the Tide of White Imperialism: The Impact of Ida B. Wells’s Transatlantic Antilynching Campaign on British Conceptions of American Race Relations,” in Women Shaping the South: Creating and Confronting Change. Edited by Angela Boswell and Judith N. McArthur. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006.

Thompson, Mildred I. Ida B. Wells-Barnett: An Exploratory Study of an American Black Woman, 1893–1930. New York: Carlson Publishing, 1990.

Wells, Ida B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Edited by Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.


“Iola, the Princess of the Press”: Wells’s Early Writings

Ida B. Wells’s earliest newspaper articles date back to 1884, when she published an account of her legal challenge to railroad segregation in the Living Way, a black Baptist weekly published in Memphis. A full-time schoolteacher, she wrote her early articles on a volunteer basis, publishing in both the Living Way and the Evening Star, a publication of the Memphis Lyceum, a literary society that Wells joined in 1885. Sadly, no copies of either of these publications exist, so we cannot retrace Wells’s first steps toward journalism. However, we do know that Wells’s concise, well-written articles soon attracted the attention of black newspaper editors across the country, who began republishing them and soliciting additional contributions. Elected editor of the Evening Star in 1886, Wells also secured her first paying assignment that year, becoming a regular correspondent for the American Baptist, a national publication that paid her “the lavish sum of one dollar weekly.”1

The network of publications that solicited and featured her work increased steadily thereafter, and soon included the A.M.E. Church Review, the Indianapolis World, the Kansas City Dispatch, and Chicago Conservator. By the late 1880s, Wells was one of the most prolific and well-known black female journalists of her day. She wrote under the pen name Iola, a name she selected because its rural twang expressed the ambitions that shaped her journalism. Raised in a small town, Ida considered herself a country girl and addressed her writings to the rural black Southerners who formed the vast majority of the region’s black community. She was all too aware that the farm families whose children she taught during her years as a country schoolteacher were in desperate need of guidance and education, and wrote in a simple and direct style designed to communicate with this audience.

Her efforts earned her the title “Iola, the Princess of the Press,” and a fan base large enough to allow her to shift from teaching to full-time journalism—a shift that became a necessity in the winter of 1891 when she published a scathing critique of the conditions of Memphis’s colored schools. She was fired, probably not for complaining that the schools occupied “few and utterly inadequate buildings” but rather because she also noted that some of the teachers “had little to recommend them save an illicit relationship with a member of the school board.”2 Wells’s accusation referenced a not-so-clandestine affair between a black schoolteacher and a young white lawyer who worked for the school board, who had been instrumental in securing the teacher’s job, which she considered a “glaring evil.”3 But she might have also been ready to leave. In 1889, she had purchased a one-third interest in the black newspaper the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, and by 1892, she was the half owner and full-time editor of Free Speech. Once she left teaching behind, Wells built up the paper’s business by using her railroad press pass to traverse the Delta selling subscriptions. Soon Free Speech’s circulation all but tripled, providing Wells with “an income nearly as large” as the salary she had earned while teaching.4

Republished here, Wells’s surviving early works demonstrate her talent for addressing a range of issues. Writing at a time when female journalists were still relatively scarce and wrote largely on women’s issues, Wells took a genuine interest in subjects such as “Woman’s Mission” and “The Model Woman.” Still in her twenties, and dating a variety of eligible men, Wells hoped to achieve the “ladylike refinement” she extolled in her discussions of these topics, although she often rued her own “tempestuous, rebellious hard-headed willfulness.”5

But at the same time, Wells was also fascinated by many of the same political and social issues that preoccupied her male journalist colleagues. Like them, she was concerned with the rising tide of racial discrimination that was relegating African Americans to segregated railroad cars and separate organizations. She protested racial segregation in articles such as “The Jim Crow Car,” and “‘Iola’ on Discrimination”—which also critiqued black self-segregation. Moreover, she was also bitterly aware of the legal and political developments that had helped erode African American civil rights. She mourned the repeal of the Civil Rights Bill of 1875, which was declared unconstitutional in 1883, and condemned the Republican Party for abandoning any further support for black civil rights. A political independent, like her mentor Thomas Fortune, she was convinced that blacks owed little loyalty to either party, and advocated “Freedom of Political Action.”

And finally, Wells was also concerned about racial violence and lynching. Although nowhere near as preoccupied with these subjects as she would become after the lynching that rocked Memphis in 1892, Wells published a controversial article in Free Speech in 1891, the text of which has not survived. But its contents are described in a brief editorial that Wells wrote for the New York Age, which is preserved in her papers, and also included here. In it, Wells defends her paper’s praise for the residents of Georgetown, Kentucky, who took “revenge for the lynching” of a member of their community. “Two wrongs do not make a right,” the Memphis Commercial Appeal told the Free Speech’s outspoken editor, while the Jackson (Mississippi) Tribune and Sun suggested that Memphis whites should get together and “muzzle the ‘Free Speech.”6 This suggestion would prove prophetic less than a year later, when the Free Speech’s fearless female editor finally went too far.


In the years following Reconstruction, African Americans received little support from the Republican Party, which inspired some black thinkers to question their race’s tradition of loyalty to the party. Among them was Wells’s mentor, black journalist T. Thomas Fortune,7 who believed that African Americans ought to abandon party loyalties in favor of pressing their case with both parties. His position was unpopular with most black editors, who charged him with trying to solicit political appointments from the Democrats. But Wells supported Fortune. In this article, she defends Fortune’s loyalties as a race man, and argues that no other publication was as outspoken and worthy of support as the Freeman.

SOURCE: “Stick to the Race,” Living Way, reprinted in the New York Freeman, February 7, 1885.


A Word Concerning Southern Editors


As Mr. Fortune, in THE FREEMAN says, so pointedly: “It is noticeable that these self-same editors who attempt to confuse, ridicule and abuse the author of this article, and bemoan that the Negro would, under these circumstances, assume social equality, are the very ones, who a few short weeks ago, were assuring the Negro he would be more safe, and have more of his rights accorded him than ever before.” Such a ridiculous farce as they are attempting! Such illogical deductions as they make! Such sorry shams as they are anyway! They excite the contempt and anger of every fair-minded person. One good result of the late political revolution8 is already apparent; it has aroused the mass of colored people as never before since the war. Every paper contains a protest, a gem of its kind from some one who voices the sentiment of a long-suffering people. From all over the land comes this cry, the ranks of which are being swelled by the voices of other nations. May it continue to swell until the public opinion, like Banquo’s ghost9 will not down a Southern editor’s (caterers to a minority’s will) bidding. May you continue to let such articles, with just such headings, concerning the unjust treatment of the railroads, stand in your papers until every wrong is righted!

Of the 100 (according to THE FREEMAN) newspapers in existence, devoted to the interests of the race, I know of none more fearless, outspoken, more ready to sound the alarm of coming danger, or present situation, none more worthy of support than THE FREEMAN itself. Yet, strange to say, it has enemies of its race, who claim that it has been disloyal to the Republican party. Mr. Fortune has always claimed to be working in the interests of the race, which he holds to be superior to those of any party, and not for party favors or interests; and his position is right, the true one.IOLA


Wells was a consistent critic of the elite and wealthy race leaders, who used their wealth to shelter themselves from discrimination but failed to employ their power and resources to help other African Americans. A lifelong advocate of racial uplift, she was impatient with African American leaders who distanced themselves from the masses. In many ways, this article is typical of Wells’s acerbic style—she was known for her bold choice of targets and cutting wit.

SOURCE: “Functions of Leadership,” Living Way, reprinted in the New York Freeman, August 8, 1885.


“Iola” States some Facts about Leadership which may Make Somebody Wince


I came across a letter last week in the Detroit Plaindealer,10 from Washington, signed S. S. R., in which he gave a whole string of names, of men who are famous as orators, politicians, office-holders, teachers, lawyers, congressmen, and an ex-senator—from whom to choose a leader or leaders of the race. “Let me see,” mused I, “these men have acquired fame and wealth in their several callings, they have and are now declaring themselves devoted to the interests of the people, and are thereby looked upon as leaders, have unimpeachable characters, are justly called representatives of the race—but since they have by individual energy, gotten the well earned laurels of fame, wealth, individual recognition and influence—how many of them are exerting their talents and wealth for the benefit or amelioration of the condition of the masses?” I look around among those I know, and read up the histories of those I do not know, and it seems to me the interest ceases after self has been provided for. Of those who are amassing, or have wealth I can not call to mind a single one who has expended or laid out any of his capital for the purpose of opening business establishments, or backing those that are opened by those of limited means; none of them have opened such establishments where the young colored men and women who have been educated can find employment, and yet complain that there is no opening for the young people.

The whites have the young people of their own race to employ, and it is hardly to be wondered at that they do not do for the Negro what his leaders have not done for him; if those who have capital to employ in establishing such enterprises as are needed why—the—the leaders are leaving a great field, whereby their leadership can be strengthened, undeveloped. The ambition seems to be to get all they can for their own use, and the rest may shift for themselves; some of them do not wish, after getting wealth for themselves, to be longer identified with the people to whom they owe their political preferment; if no more. They are able to pay for berths and seats in Pullman cars,11 and consequently can report that—“railroad officials don’t bother me, in traveling;” and give entertainments that have but a single representative of their own race present, can see and hear of indignities and insults offered their people because of individual preservation from such, can look and listen unmoved saying, “if it were my wife or daughter or relative I would do so and so,” so what real benefit are they to their race any way? “Their example is beneficial, by inspiring others to follow in their footsteps with a hope of similar success,” did some one say? True, I had almost forgotten that; example is a great thing, but all of us can not be millionaires, orators, lawyers, doctors; what then must become of the minority, the middle and lower classes that are found in all races? It is easier to say “go thou and do likewise,” than do it. I would like very much for S. S. R. to tell me what material benefit is a “leader” if he does not, to some extent, devote his time, talent and wealth to the alleviation of the poverty and misery, and elevation of his people?



Here, Wells endorses T. Thomas Fortune’s suggestion that African Americans support neither the Democratic nor Republican parties, but instead remain politically independent.

SOURCE: “Freedom of Political Action,” Living Way, reprinted in the New York Freeman, November 7, 1885.


A Woman’s Magnificent Definition of the Political Situation


To the Editor of THE NEW YORK FREEMAN:

There is an old saying that advises to “give the devil his due,” and after reading your editorial on “Mr. Cleveland and the Colored People,” I was forcibly struck with the thought, that so few people are willing to admit that he has any “due.” Evidently there is very little reasoning powers among those who need such a plain rehearsal of historical facts. According to their logic the side they espouse is all good, the opposite—all bad; the one, the Republican party, can do no wrong—however often they use colored men for tools; the other, the Democratic side, can do no good—whatever the profession—because of past history. More could not be expected of ignorant, unthinking men than to be incapable of giving one credit for honest difference of opinion. It is considered a sign of narrow, bigoted mind to be unable to listen to a diverse argument without intolerance and passion, yet how few among so-called “leaders,” editors (moulders of public opinion) but are guilty of this same fault, are ready to cry “stop thief” to those who dare to step out of the beaten political track and maintain honest opinions and independent convictions of their own? It seems strange—well nigh impossible to me—that a highminded soul would refuse to credit even his bitterest foe for an honorable action. If the Democratic party had continued its past attitude in all its rigor toward the Negro, is not Mr. Cleveland to be commended for his attitude and expressions? Is it an inconsistency to commend the qualities that call forth admiration without endorsing all an opponent’s traits and party too? And yet to read some editorials one would think so.

Of course such sentiments as these make me a Democrat, according to some creeds, notwithstanding the following definition of my position: I am not a Democrat, because the Democrats considered me a chattel and possibly might have always so considered me, because their record from the beginning has been inimical to my interests; because they had become notorious in their hatred of the Negro as a man, have refused him the ballot, have murdered, beaten and outraged him and refused him his rights. I am not a Republican, because, after they—as a party measure and an inevitable result of the war—had “given the Negro his freedom” and the ballot box following, all through their reign—while advocating the doctrine of the Federal Government’s right to protecting her citizens—they suffered the crimes against the Negro, that have made the South notorious, to go unpunished and almost unnoticed, and turned them over to the tender mercies of the South entirely, as a matter of barter in ’76,12 to secure the Presidency; because after securing the Negro vote in full—from a slavish sense of gratitude a Republican Supreme Court revoked a law of a Republican Congress and sent the Negro back home for injustice to those whom the Republican party had taught the Negro to fear and hate. Because they care no more for the Negro than the Democrats do, and because even now, and since their defeat last November, the Republican head(?) and the New York Republican Convention are giving to utterances and passing resolutions recommending State rights, and the taking from the Negro—for the reason his vote is not counted, but represented in the Electoral College, that they claim his gratitude for giving—the ballot.

This being my position I can see very plainly how one can sanction some particular phase of each party without being able to endorse either as a whole and thus be independent—and because that is my position. I naturally wonder that others do not “see as I do.” I do not think with the Plaindealer that independence is evinced by studiously avoiding reference to politics that would be indirect acknowledgment of subserviency. Colored men have been ostracized for joining the ranks of the Democracy—in obedience to a time-worn tradition that no Negro could conscientiously be a Democrat; that he who so voted did so because of being bought, and therefore deserving the contempt of all honest men. But in view of the foregoing synopsis of the history of the Republican party; in view of the declaration made by John Sherman,13 in 1894, in a recently published letter to some Martin, a Louisiana friend, that he did not care a rap for the “nigger,” and would not have troubled them in their slave rights, if they had not raised hands against the Union; in view of his “Bloody Shirt”14 cry in 1885 to secure his own re-election; in view of the fact that almost the only argument used by stump-speakers for the g.o.p. now is—“colored men have a chance for office”—and almost the only regret and fear, when Cleveland was elected, by the office holders was concerning their offices; in view of all this and their willingness to retain them under a Democratic Administration and remain “mum” about the g.o.p., it would seem to a disinterested observer that the Republican party was being served as much for the “loaves and fishes” within its gift as from principle, and “what is sauce for the goose, etc.”

It is not in favor, nor against the interest of either party that I write this. Let a man be Democrat, Republican or Independent as his judgment dictates, if he is obeying honest and intelligent convictions. It is the spirit of intolerance and narrow mindedness among colored men of intelligence that is censured and detested. This is a free country and among other things it boasts the privilege of free speech and personal opinion. If you are a man worthy the name, you should not become a scoundrel, a “time-server” in my estimation because you differ from me in politics or otherwise—for intelligent reasons. I can respect your views without endorsing them and still believe you to be honest, nor will I stop my paper on that account.

There is (as all are having a pick at you for your Lynchburg sayings and doings) one question I would like to ask. It has puzzled me and I come to the fountain head for a solution. In consideration of the fact of the unjust treatment of the Negro in the South; of the outrages and discriminations to which he is and has been a victim, as is well, very well known to yourself, do you really and candidly believe your assertion that if appealed to in honesty the white people of the South “could not and would not refuse us justice?” I don’t believe it, because they have been notably deaf to our calls of justice heretofore, as well as to the persuasions, in our behalf, of their own people. What I see every day and what you know of the case caused surprise at the assertion. I don’t believe, however, it was done for effect, for I don’t believe you are a toady. If I did the matter would be easily explained.




Wells wrote this early article for T. Thomas Fortune, who added its sweeping subtitle, “A Beautiful Christmas Essay on the Duty of Woman in the World’s Economy.” A discussion of the male and female spheres ordained in the Bible, Wells’s piece stresses that women have a “supreme influence for good” that makes them as powerful as men. She also encourages African American women to better cultivate their influence.

SOURCE: “Woman’s Mission,” New York Freeman, December 26, 1885.


A Beautiful Christmas Essay on The Duty of Woman in the World’s Economy


After this planet had been thrown in space and chaos resolved into land and water, the earth was prepared for the habitation of the various animal creation, and man was given dominion over them.

Adam, not satisfied with being ruler of all living things and monarch of all he surveyed, still felt a void in his heart. In the vast solitude of the garden of Eden, as far as the eye could reach, could be seen the cattle on a thousand hills, the creeping things of the earth, air and water—all subservient to his will and owning him as master. In all this vast expanse there was no one to dispute his authority or question his sway; still he was not satisfied, for he was alone. Aye, though surrounded by all that was fairest and wonderful in animal and vegetable life, throughout the countless swarm there was no other soul; thus he was alone, for there was no one to share his glory, exult in his magnificence, nor praise his handiwork.

The Grand Architect of the Universe created a being to fill this void, to be the kindred spirit, to help in the work of tending and dressing the garden; in short, to be a companion and helpmeet to man; and when Adam awoke and found this living soul created alike, and yet differently, beside him, he called her woman, and ever since by that name has this being been known. Truly—

“The world was sad, the garden was a wild.

The man, the Hermit sighed, till woman smiled.”15

In all histories, biblical and political, ancient and modern, among the names of those who have won laurels for themselves as philanthropists, statesmen, leaders of armies, rulers of empires—we find here and there the name of woman. She has gradually ascended the scale of human progress as men have become more enlightened, until in this 19th century there are few positions she may not aspire to. In colleges she has nobly vindicated her right of equality; in the professions essayed she has borne herself with credit and honor; in positions of trust she has proven her ability and faithfulness.

What is, or should be, woman? Not merely a bundle of flesh and bones, nor a fashion plate, a frivolous inanity, a soulless doll, a heartless coquette—but a strong, bright presence, thoroughly imbued with a sense of her mission on earth and a desire to fill it; an earnest, soulful being, laboring to fit herself for life’s duties and burdens, and bearing them faithfully when they do come; but a womanly woman for all that, upholding the banner and striving for the goal of pure, bright womanhood through all vicissitudes and temptations. Her influence is boundless. Only the ages of eternity will serve to show the results of woman’s influence. A woman’s influence gave a new continent to the world. A woman’s influence caused man to sin and entailed a curse on all succeeding generations. Woman’s influence has been the making of great men, the marring of many more; the inspiration of poets, students and artists, the bane of others. Woman’s influence, through “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,”16 was indirectly one of the causes of the abolition of slavery. But it is not queens, conscious of power and security [illegible] and yet the many workers and artists who minister to their love of the truthful and beautiful, that most possess this influence for good; of whom men speak with supreme admiration and revere with tender love; but woman as embodied in the various characters of daughter, sister, wife, mother. While hallowed associations cluster around all these, no earthly name is so potent to move men’s hearts, is sweeter or dearer than that of mother. No other blessing can compensate the loss of a good mother. Speak to the hardened criminal of his mother and he is subdued; his defiant look is replaced by one of unutterable longing for the time in the long ago when he was a white-souled child, with no conception of the world outside his home and no pastime without his mother’s face as the central picture.

The masses of the women of our race have not awakened to a true sense of the responsibilities that devolve on them, of the influence they exert; they have not yet realized the necessity for erecting a standard of earnest, thoughtful, pure, noble womanhood, rather than one of fashion, idleness and uselessness. A standard bearing these lines:

“A perfect woman, nobly planned

To warn, to comfort and command;

With something of an angel’s light

And yet, a spirit still and bright.”17

The world labored under a burden of a curse four thousand years, the consequence of one woman’s sin. But a promise was given that redemption should come at the hands of a woman, and in the year 4004 there came to a Jewish virgin an angel of the Lord and delivered unto her the tidings that she of all women had been chosen to bear to the world the promised Messiah. Eighteen hundred years ago, as the shepherds watched their flocks by night, came the fulfillment of this prophecy. Suddenly on the astonished eyes of the affrighted shepherds, broke the vision of angels proclaiming “Peace on earth, good will to men!”18 And this Son born of woman, whose birthnight we celebrate, is owned the world over; and wherever the Christ child is recognized, nations this night join in worship and adoration.

O, woman, woman! thine is a noble heritage! how tenderly He speaks for thee, when others censure thee for thy service of love and denial! How cheering His invitation to thee to lay thy burdens at His feet! And when thou wast reviled, scorned, outcast, and in danger of being stoned by the multitude, He had only words of pity for thy weaknesses, compassion, pardon and peace. Thou was last at His cross and first at His tomb; in his dying agony thy welfare was His expiring thought. Continue in the good offices that first won His approval; make a living reality of the herald’s good tidings of great joy and help men to know this Savior of mankind; to feel that there is a better, higher life and a purer, nobler, more fitting way of celebrating this anniversary of His birth, than in drunken debauchery and midnight carousals; recall to their minds the poor and needy, the halt and blind that are always with us and who stand in need of Christmas cheer. Teach them this better way of honoring Him who made visible to the world that “by woman came sin and death into the world—by woman, also, came redemption.”19



“A STORY OF 1900”

Although Wells would make her career as a journalist, she loved fiction, and dreamed of being a novelist. In practice, however, fiction does not seem to have come easily to Wells, who was otherwise prolific. Published in the Fisk Herald in 1886, “The Story of 1900” is among the few fictional pieces that Wells ever produced. Clearly autobiographical, and stronger on message than on plot, it looks to the future to underscore the importance higher education had in racial uplift and reflects on how black teachers might best serve their students.

SOURCE: “A Story of 1900,” Fisk Herald, 1886.


Twenty years ago a young girl went from one of the many colleges of our Southland to teach among her people. While she taught for a livelihood she performed her duty conscientiously with a desire to carry the light of education to those who dwelt in darkness, by faithfully instructing her charges in their text-books and grounding them firmly in the rudiments. She was born, reared and educated in the South, consequently the sentiments regarding, and the treatment of, the Negro were not unknown to her. Justice compelled her to acknowledge sadly that his moral and temporal status had not kept pace with the intellectual, and while reluctantly admitting this fact that was so often so exultantly and contemptuously cited against him she wondered if there were no remedy for a state of things that she knew was not irremediable. Since it had been amply proven that education alone would not be the salvation of the race, that his religion generally, was wholly emotional and had no bearing on his everyday life she thought that if the many ministers of the gospel, public and professional men of the race would exert their influence specifically—by precept and example—that they might do much to erase the stigma from the name. She never thought of the opportunities she possessed to mould high moral characters by—as the Episcopalians do their religion—instilling elevated thoughts, race pride and ambition with their daily lessons. One day a gentleman visited the school and mentioned a promising youth, 18 years old, who had attended that school, as being sentenced to the penitentiary the day before for three years for stealing a suit of clothes; he concluded his recital by sorrowfully saying: “That’s all our boys go to school for, they get enough education to send them to the penitentiary and the girls do worse.” It flashed on her while he was talking that the real want was proper home and moral training combined with mental that would avert a too frequent repetition of this sad case and that the duty of Negro teachers was to supplement this lack, as none had greater opportunities. There came over her such a desire to make the case in point an impressive lesson that school-work was suspended while she related the story and for half an hour earnestly exhorted them to cultivate honest, moral habits, to lay a foundation for a noble character that would convince the world that worth and not color made the man. From that time forth, whenever a case in point came up, she would tell them to illustrate that the way of the transgressor is hard; also that every such case only helped to confirm the discreditable opinion already entertained for the Negro. These casual earnest talks made a deep impression, her pupils became thoughtful and earnest, a deeper meaning was given to study; school-life began to be viewed in a new light; as a means to an end; they learned, through her, that there was a work out in the world waiting for them to come and take hold, and these lessons sunk deep in their minds.

Their quiet deportment and manly independence as they grew older was noticeable. This teacher who had just awakened to a true sense of her mission did not stop here; she visited the homes, those where squalor and moral uncleanness walked hand in hand with poverty, as well as the better ones and talked earnestly with the parents on these themes, of laboring to be self-respecting so they might be respected; of a practical Christianity, of setting a pure example in cleanliness and morals before their children. Before, she viewed their sins with loathing and disgust; now she was animated by a lofty purpose and earnest aim and the Son of Righteousness sustained her. She spent her life in the school-room and one visiting the communities to-day in which she labored will say when observing the intelligent happy homes and families, the advanced state of moral and temporal elevation of her one time pupils—that she has not lived in vain, that the world is infinitely better for her having in one corner of the earth endeavored to make it bloom with wheat, useful grain or beautiful flowers instead of allowing cruel thorns, or rank and poisonous thistles to flourish unmolested.

Some may ask, why we have been thus premature in recording a history of twenty years hence. The answer is short and simple that the many teachers of the race may not be content simply to earn a salary, but may also use their opportunity and influence. Finally gentle reader, that you and I “may go and do likewise.”




In this article, Wells defends black women, whose morality and womanly virtues were often questioned by nineteenth-century white commentators. Under slavery, Wells points out, black women suffered an “involuntary . . . and enforced poverty, ignorance, and immorality” from which they had only recently escaped. Moreover, she also notes that despite these hardships, many African American women in Memphis and throughout the South managed to achieve “true, noble, and refining womanhood.”

SOURCE: “Our Women,” New York Freeman, January 1, 1887.


The Brilliant “Iola” Defends Them


Among the many things that have transpired to dishearten the Negroes in their effort to attain a level in the status of civilized races, has been the wholesale contemptuous defamation of their women.

Unmindful of the fact that our enslavement with all the evils attendant thereon, was involuntary and that enforced poverty ignorance and immorality was our only dower at its close, there are writers who have nothing to give the world in their disquisitions on the Negroes, save a rehearsal of their worthlessness, immorality, etc.

While all these accusations, allowed as we usually are, no opportunity to refute them, are hurtful to and resented by us, none sting so deeply and keenly as the taunt of immorality; the jest and sneer with which our women are spoken of, and the utter incapacity or refusal to believe there are among us mothers, wives and maidens who have attained a true, noble, and refining womanhood. There are many such all over this Southland of ours, and in our own city they abound. It is this class who, learning of the eloquent plea in defense of, and the glowing tribute paid Negro womanhood, by G. P. M. Turner20 in the speech he delivered in the Bewden case, return him their heartfelt thanks and assure him that their gratitude and appreciation of him as a gentleman, a lawyer and a far seeing economist is inexpressible. Our race is no exception to the rest of humanity, in its susceptibility to weakness, nor is it any consolation for us to know that the nobility of England and the aristocratic circles of our own country furnish parallel examples of immorality. We only wish to be given the same credit for our virtues that others receive, and once the idea gains ground that worth is respected, from whatever source it may originate, a great incentive to good morals will have been given. For what you have done in that respect accept the sincere thanks of the virtuous colored women of this city.



In December 1886, Wells attended a meeting of the Knights of Labor Union. Her experience there inspired her to ponder the merits of integration versus voluntary segregation. In this article, Wells expresses a largely negative view of voluntary segregation, and suggests that African Americans should avoid self-segregation. She believed that blacks helped “keep prejudice alive” when they held their own meetings of the Knights of Labor, provided separate seating for whites who attended black events, or created separate schools for black children.

SOURCE: “‘Iola’ on Discrimination,” New York Freeman, January 15, 1887.



We howl about the discrimination exercised by other races, unmindful that we are guilty of the same thing. The spirit that keeps Negroes out of the colleges and places him by himself, is the same that drives him in the smoking car; the spirit that makes colored men run excursions with “a separate car for our white friends,” etc., provides separate seats for them when they visit our concerts, exhibitions, etc., is the same that sends the Negro to theatre and church galleries and second class waiting rooms; the feeling that prompts colored barbers, hotel keepers and the like to refuse accommodation to their own color is the momentum that sends a Negro right about when he presents himself at any similar first-class establishment run by white men; the shortsightedness that insists on separate Knights of Labor21 Assemblies for colored men, is the same power that forces them into separate Masonic and Odd Fellow lodges.22 Consciously and unconsciously we do as much to widen the breach already existing and to keep prejudice alive as the other race. There was not a separate school in the State of California until the colored people asked for it. To say we wish to be to ourselves is a tacit acknowledgment of the inferiority that they take for granted anyway. The ignorant man who is so shortsighted has some excuse, but the man or men who deliberately yield or barter the birthright of the race for money, position, self-aggrandizement in any form, deserve and will receive the contumely of a race made wise by experience.


MEMPHIS, TENN., DEC. 28, 1886


In this article, Wells reflects on the nineteenth-century cult of true womanhood, which defined morality and piety as distinctly female virtues, and assigned women a central role in advancing the moral character of their race. Wells agrees, and also suggests that black women have a special duty to uplift and provide an example for the race’s lower classes.

SOURCE: “The Model Woman,” New York Freeman, February 18, 1888.


A Pen Picture of the Typical Southern Girl


Although there may be girls in our sunny southland to whom the definition in the preceding article may apply, they are not the ideal type. Whatever else she may be, “the typical Southern girl” of to-day is not without refinement, is not coarse and rude in her manners, nor loud and fast in her deportment.

Nor is the stiff, formal, haughty girl the ideal. The field is too broad and the work too great, our people are at once too hospitable and resentful to yield such one much room in their hearts.

The typical girl’s only wealth, in most cases, is her character; and her first consideration is to preserve that character in spotless purity.

As a miser hoards and guards his gold, so does she guard her virtue and good name. For the sake of the noble womanhood to which she aspires, and the race whose name bears the stigma of immorality—her soul scorns each temptation to sin and guilt. She counts no sacrifice too great for the preservation of honor. She knows that our people, as a whole, are charged with immorality and vice; that it depends largely on the woman of to-day to refute such charges by her stainless life.

In the typical girl this jewel of character is enriched and beautified by the setting of womanly modesty, dignity of deportment, and refinement of manners; and the whole enveloped in a casket of a sweetness of disposition, and amiability of temper that makes it a pleasure to be near her. She is like the girl of fairy tales, who was said to drop pearls from her mouth as she talked, for her language is elegant from its simplicity and chastity; even though not always in accordance with rules of syntax, is beautiful because of absence of slang.

She is as far above mean, petty acts and venomous, slanderous gossip of her own sex as the moon—which sails serenely in the heavens—is above the earth. Her bearing toward the opposite sex, while cordial and free, is of such nature as increases their respect for and admiration of her sex, and her influence is wholly for good. She strives to encourage in them all things honest, noble and manly. She regards all honest toil as noble, because it is ordained of God that man should earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. She does not think a girl has anything of which to be proud in not knowing how to work, and esteems it among her best accomplishments that she can cook, wash, iron, sew and “keep house” thoroughly and well.

This type of Negro girl may not be found so often as she might, but she is the pattern after which all others copy.

To those who recognize in this pen picture the true woman, and desire to model after her, I send this beautiful gem of an acrostic, written by a friend for a young lady’s album. In its five lines is epitomized all of the above. If young girls would commit and engrave them on their hearts, they would bear with them everywhere a true inspiration and guide:

“Lucile! Since all the world’s a stage—

Upon which, we, the actors

Come and go in every age,

In each act needful factors,—

Live nobly, grandly, aim afar!

Live nobly, grandly, aim afar!

E’er onward, skyward—be a star!”




Published in the A.M.E. Church Review (April 1891), this essay takes on the antiblack sentiments expressed by Frances E. Willard, president of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Whereas Willard maintained that black men were especially prone to intemperance, and dangerous to white women while drunk, Wells countered that intemperance was no greater a problem among African Americans than within any other race. She also pointed out that “in his wildest moments [the black man] seldom molests others than his own, and this article is a protest against such wholesale self-injury.” A temperance supporter herself, Wells clearly thought temperance was a matter of class rather than race. Her article calls upon the lower classes to live virtuous, temperate lives, and the higher classes to aid in their progress.

SOURCE: “All Things Considered . . . ,” A.M.E. Church Review, April 1891.


All things considered, our race is probably not more intemperate than other races. By reason, though, of poverty, ignorance, and consequent degradation as a mass, we are behind in general advancement. We can, therefore, less afford to equal other races in that which still further debases, degrades and impoverishes, when we lack so much of being their equals in noble manhood and womanhood (intellectual, moral, and physical), in houses, lands, gold and most things whatsoever which tend to elevate and ennoble a people. Hence the present treatment of the temperance question will be from a race and economic standpoint.

Races, as individuals, make name and place for themselves by emulating the virtues of those who have made themselves great and powerful. The history of such nations teaches us that temperance is one of the cardinal virtues necessary to success. What headway are we making in cultivating this virtue?

Miss Frances E. Willard,23 president of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, lately told the world that the center of power of the race is the saloon; that white men for this reason are afraid to leave their homes; that the Negro, in the late Prohibition campaign, sold his vote for twenty-five cents, etc.

Miss Willard’s statements possess the small pro rata of truth of all such sweeping statements. It is well known that the Negro’s greatest injury is done to himself.

In his wildest moments he seldom molests others than his own, and this article is a protest against such wholesale self-injury.

Our color stands as a synonym for weakness, poverty and ignorance. It says to other nationalities: “This man belongs to a race possessing little of the power or influence which comes through riches, intellect, or even organization. We may proscribe, insult, ignore and oppress him as we please; he cannot help himself.”

The Anglo-Saxon in every avenue of life puts in practice this line of reasoning; and as intemperance is one of the strongest foes to intellectual, material, and moral advancement, it is like playing with fire to take that in the mouth which steals away the brains, and thus gives judges and juries the excuse for filling the convict camps24 of Georgia alone with fifteen hundred Negroes, out of the sixteen hundred convicts in them, most of whom are young men—the flower of the race, physically speaking.

At the close of the year, when farmers receive pay for the year’s work, thousands of dollars, which might flow into honorable channels of trade and build up race enterprises, are spent for liquor to inflame the blood and incite to evil deeds. That which is not directly spent for liquor is lost or wasted; and thus, year in and out, one of the most useful factors in race progress—the farmer—is kept at a dead level, without money, without ambition, and consequently at the mercy of the landholder.

The belief is widespread that our people will patronize the saloon as they do no other enterprise. Desiring to secure some of the enormous profits flowing into Anglo-Saxon coffers, many of our young men are entering the nefarious traffic for the money it brings, and thus every year sacrificing to the Moloch25 of intemperance hundreds of our young men. Intemperance is general and organized. In the cities it beguiles from every street corner and is found in many homes.

What shall be done to neutralize this power which tempts our young manhood and robs us of their time, talents, labor and money? Throughout the length and breadth of our land there exists little organized effort among ourselves against it. What can we do?

The convention of Educators of Colored Youth in Atlanta, Ga., last December, in discussing the relative mortality of the race, took the ground that intemperance was chiefly the cause of our alarming mortality. The presidents of the schools and colleges in that convention assembled represented thousands of students who are to be the teachers of the race. The subject of temperance and her twin sister, frugality, should not be left for them to touch upon as an abstract matter, or in an incidental or spasmodic manner. An earnest, constant, systematic course of instruction from an economic standpoint in these schools, on this subject, which the students are in turn to impart to the people, is of vital importance, would be far-reaching and beneficial in its results; that association can wield a great power for the spread of temperance.

The National Press Association (representing over one hundred newspapers) which met in Cincinnati last month, speaking weekly to a constituency of perhaps a million readers, as an organized body can revolutionize public sentiment by showing how intemperance is sapping our physical and financial resources. The writer knows one secular journal which has lost many dollars by refusing to advertise saloons. That is the action of one sheet. There is needed, however, harmonious and consistent combination of agitation and effort from the entire body.

Nor must the ministers of the gospel, the most potent agents, who directly reach the masses, cease to preach temperance in their lives and pulpits, line upon line, and precept upon precept.

The Negro’s greatest lack is his seeming incapacity for organization for his own protection and elevation. Yet every reader of these lines, who loves his race and feels the force of these statements, can make himself a committee of one to influence some one else. One person does not make a race, but the nation is made up of a multiplicity of units. Not one grain of sand, but countless millions of them, side by side, make the ocean bed. A single stream does not form the “Father of Waters,” but the conjunctive force of a hundred streams in the bottom of the Mississippi Basin, swells into the broad artery of commerce, which courses the length of this continent, and sweeps with resistless current to the sea. So, too, an organized combination of all these agencies for humanity’s good will sweep the country with a wave of public sentiment which shall make the liquor traffic unprofitable and dishonorable, and remove one of the principal stumbling blocks to race progress.



Founded by T. Thomas Fortune in 1890, the National Afro-American League was one of the nation’s earliest civil rights organizations. Its second annual meeting, which was held in Knoxville, Tennessee, was well attended by black Southerners but attracted few Northerners or Westerners, whose absence was widely attributed to Tennessee’s separate-car laws. At the meeting, the league passed a number of resolutions, including a denunciation of segregated transportation. Wells pushed the league to adopt a more aggressive plan of action regarding separate-car laws, which were becoming ubiquitous throughout the South, but the meeting did not produce anything concrete. This article, which originated in a private letter that Wells wrote to Fortune, condemns Jim Crow cars and expresses Wells’s frustration with the Afro-American League’s moderate leadership.

SOURCE: “The Jim Crow Car,” New York Age, August 8, 1891.


A Woman’s Opinion of the Infamous Thing

In a personal letter to our Mr. Fortune, Miss Ida B. Wells of the Memphis Free Speech, dated Memphis, Tenn., July 25, has the following to say on “The Jim Crow Car:”

I am glad you express determination to do some fighting on the separate car question. It’s the League’s26 work and it should never have adjourned without adopting that as its immediate work. We cannot and should not wait for the support of the masses before we begin the work but trust to the inherent drawing power of the eternal principles of right. Since we haven’t a national organization in the strict sense of the term, we should and must depend for success upon earnest zeal and hard work to spread the truth of our cause and insure its success. The history of the abolitionists shows that they did it, and kept it up with tireless zeal, until that handful of men and women made themselves heard and people began to think. Surely we can do as much to make their work complete, as they did to begin with. But the right steps were not taken at Knoxville and the pity of it all was there seemed no time to find or agree upon the right steps. Certainly none were taken.

As to my journey to Chattanooga, I rode (as I anticipated) in the Jim Crow car; I waited (as I had to) in the Negro waiting-room, with a score or more of the men of my race looking on with indifferent eyes. Yes, we’ll have to fight, but the beginning of the fight must be with our own people. So long as the majority of them are not educated to the point of proper self-respect, so long our condition here will be hopeless. One of the gravest questions of that convention should have been—How to do it? What steps should be taken to unite our people into a real working force—a unit, powerful and complete?

I had not intended to write so much, but, I feel deeply on the subject, as my paper this week shows. Unless something is done in this way, we lose with our own as well as other people.


Wells also used Free Speech to publicize and protest the racial violence suffered by blacks. In 1891, Wells’s militant response to the violent clash between blacks and whites in Georgetown, Kentucky, outraged the editors of several nearby white newspapers, who seem to have kept a close eye on the opinions expressed in Free Speech. The Wells editorial that inspired their outrage has not survived, but evidently it expressed support for “retaliatory measures” taken by black citizens of Georgetown after a member of their community was lynched. In a second editorial, featured below, Wells responds to the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Jackson (Mississippi) Tribune and Sun’s criticisms of her work.

SOURCE: “The Lynchers Wince,” Ida B. Wells Papers (Box 8, Folder 8, Item 3), Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Editorial N. Y. Age Sept. 19, 1891


The Jackson (Miss) Tribune and Sun, and the Memphis (Tenn) Daily Commercial Appeal are squirming in great shape over the outspoken sentiments of the “Memphis Free Speech” commending the retaliatory measures adopted by the Afro Americans of Georgetown, Ky., in revenge for the lynching of one of its members. The Sun insists that the people of Memphis should proceed to muzzle the “Free Speech”, and the Commercial Appeal drops into philosophy and declares that two wrongs do not make one right; and that while white people should stick to the law, if they do not do so, the blacks can hope for nothing but extermination if they attempt to defend themselves.

This is a cowardly argument. Fundamentally men have an inherent right to defend themselves when lawful authority refuses to do it for them; and when a whole community makes itself responsible for a crime it should be held responsible . . . The way to prevent retaliation is to prevent the lynching. Human nature is human nature.


Speaking before the American Association of Colored Educators in 1891, Wells discussed “true leadership” as a quality that would be crucial to the future progress of African Americans. Her speech anticipates Du Bois’s call, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), for the development of an African American “talented tenth” who could guide their race. However, unlike Du Bois, who maintained that this talented tenth would be led by “exceptional men,” Wells envisioned a leadership class made up of both men and women.

SOURCE: Ida B. Wells, “The Requisites of True Leadership,” Journal of the Proceedings of the American Association of Colored Educators. The Session of 1891, Held in Nashville Tennessee, December 29th to 31st, 1891 (Winston, NC: Stewarts’ Printing House, 1892).



Mr. President:—I do not know how the subject which has been given me is to harmonize with aims of this Association, unless it be that it recognizes that the race whose youth we are engaged in teaching is without the one great essential of elevation and progress—True Leadership—and that from the schools and colleges here represented must come the true leaders of the people.

Humanity in all ages has been a disorganized mass of power until driven by some great molecular force into cohesion in church and State—a human Solar System which some human sun draws with centripetal force towards itself—a gigantic body requiring a head to complete its symmetry of figure and direct its movement.

Indeed all organized effort betokens leadership, and upon the world’s leadership the seal of history has set the stamp, and by that seal we know that leadership is true or false in proportion as it has been true to God, humanity and self.

Table of Contents

What Is an African American Classic? Henry Louis Gates Jr. ix

Introduction Mia Bay xix

Note on the Text xxxiii

Suggestions of Further Reading xxxv

The Light of Truth

Chapter I "Iola, the Princess of the Press": Wells's Early Writings 1

"Stick to the Race" (1885) 4

"Functions of Leadership" (1885) 6

"Freedom of Political Action" (1885) 9

"Woman's Mission" (1885) 13

"A Story of 1900" (1886) 17

"Our Woman" (1887) 20

"'Iola' on Discrimination" (1887) 22

"The Model Woman" (1888) 24

"All Things Considered ..." (1891) 27

"The Jim Crow Car" (1891) 31

"The Lynchers Wince" (1891) 33

"The Requisites of True Leadership" (1892) 35

Chapter II To Call a Thing by Its True Name: Wells's Crusade Against Lynching 42

"Afro-Americans and Africa" (1892) 46

"Bishop Tanner's 'Ray of Light'" (1892) 52

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) 57

"Iola's Southern Field" (1892) 83

"The Requirements of Southern Journalism" (1893) 88

"Lynch Law in All Its Phases" (1893) 96

"The Reign of Mob Law" (1893) 115

"Lynch Law and the Color Line" (1893) 118

"To Tole with Watermelons" (1893) 123

Selections from The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition (1893) 125

Chapter III Ida B. Wells Abroad 146

"Two Christmas Days: A Holiday Story" (1894) 149

"Liverpool Slave Traditions and Present Practices" (1894) 160

"The Bitter Cry of Black American: A New 'Uncle-Tom's Cabin'" (1894) 164

"Ida B. Wells Abroad" (1894) 171

"The English Speak" (1894) 203

"The Scoundrel" (1894) 207

Chapter IV The Crusade Continues 211

"She Pleads for Her Race: Miss Ida B. Wells Talks About Her Anti-Lynching Campaign" (1894) 213

A Red Record 218

Lynch Law in Georgia (1899) 313

Chapter V Twentieth-Century Journalism and Letters 335

Mob Rule in New Orleans: Rober Charles and His Fight to the Death (1900) 339

"Lynch Law in America" (1900) 394

"The Negro's Case in Equity" (1900) 404

"Lynching and the Excuse for It" (1901) 408

"Booker T. Washington and His Critics" (1904) 415

"How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings" (1910) 421

"The Northern Negro Woman's Social and Moral Condition" (1910) 432

"Slayer, in Grip of Law, Fights Return to South" (1910) 438

"Mrs. Ida Wells Barnett on Why Mrs. Jack Johnson Suicided" (1912) 445

"Our Country's Lynching Record" (1913) 448

"The Ordeal of the 'Solitary'" (1915) 453

The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century (1917) 456

The Arkansas Race Riot (1920) 496

Articles on the Mississippi Flood (1927) 556

Notes 569

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Wells was the most comprehensive chronicler of that common practice for which few words exist that provide sufficient condemnation. For that reason, and for Wells’ immense courage, clear pen, and understanding of the nature of journalistic advocacy, this new volume ought to become required reading for anyone interested in American history or current affairs."

"Ida B Wells stands out because she insisted on seeing."
—Ta-Nehisi Coates

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