By Len La Rocca
She was an educator, a journalist, a businesswoman, an anti-lynching crusader, a suffragist and a leader. The patriarchy began clenching their fists at a woman with such increasing power, but Ida B. Wells, a fighter of inequality, was unafraid.
“I think it is important to see the level of activism taking place to help people remember her,” said Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of Wells. “And I’m going to give my family credit because we have been in the trenches for 80 years now to make this happen.”
In honor of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, Wells’ great granddaughter, Michelle Duster, came to the Brower Student Center on Wednesday, March 4 to present on how Wells’ courage has been passed down through her family.
Born into the shackles of slavery on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Miss., Wells was the eldest of eight children. By the age of 16, Wells had lost two siblings and both of her parents to a yellow fever epidemic. As a teenager, Wells became the head of her household.
Wells was nearly split from her siblings due to a credo among her father’s mason co-workers, where they would take in orphaned children. However, she was having no part of the separation, as she felt history repeating itself.
“Our family believes … that she really had a problem with the idea of her siblings being separated because she had grown up hearing the story of her mother who had been sold as a slave when she was seven,” Duster said. “We believe that Ida was like, ‘There is no way that my siblings are going to be separated’ the way that her mother experienced.”
Wells became a teacher in 1878 to support her siblings. As times were vastly different, she was only required to pass an exam to become an educator. In order to secure the job and some sort of financial income, she altered her appearance to appear older. While she was at work, her grandmother looked after her younger siblings.
Two years later, Wells moved to the Memphis, Tenn. area in search of greater pay as an educator. She found a teaching job in Woodstock, Tenn., yet had a life-altering event take place on a train ride from Woodstock to Memphis. The train conductor would not allow her to ride in what was known as the “ladies car,” even though she had bought a ticket.
After a heated confrontation with the conductor, Wells was forced to commute to Memphis by wagon and went on to unsuccessfully sue the railroad system. Wells won in the lower courts, yet lost in the State Supreme Court as segregation was fomenting.
“That’s another thing that I think really sparked her activism, because it started making her not believe that the law was on the side of African-Americans,” Duster said. “You can’t get justice within the legal system.”
Nevertheless, Wells persisted and continued to educate herself. She joined a learning community organized by a church that held clubs, then called lyceums, which dedicated time to the literary arts such as poetry, performing plays, creating newsletters and holding discussions.
“She became very interested in having a creative outlet outside of teaching,” Duster said. “She was very clear, if you ever read her diary, that she was not very stimulated by teaching and so she needed an outside way of expressing herself.”
Considering Wells’ spark for activism, love for expression and boredom in teaching, journalism provided her with a new field where her passions converged.
“Ida, as a young child, was asked to read the newspaper to her father and his friends,” Duster said. “So again, to me, that’s kind of training for her to gain confidence that she as a woman, as a girl (and) as a female, could talk in front of men.”
And talk she did. Wells began reporting for what is known today as The Memphis Free Speech, uncovering the truth that ‘separate, but equal’ was instead separate but unequal. She went on to become a part-owner of The Memphis Free Speech.
One story she published, however, resulted in her termination at her teaching job.
“She found the teaching conditions to be so unbearable that she decided to write an editorial in the newspaper about how it was separate and unequal between the black schools and the white schools,” Duster said. “The white teachers were paid more, they had better working conditions, they had better more resources. It was a stark difference. So she decided to write about it and ultimately got fired.”
This prompted Wells to become a full-time journalist.
Wells’ reporting encouraged black people to boycott white-owned businesses, not go to work and essentially leave Memphis. As a result, railroad workers threatened to kill her if she continued publishing this sort of work. Yet, Wells did not back down.
“She admittedly said she bought a pistol and vowed to take everybody out with her if they came for her,” Duster said.
One of the most famous stories Wells reported on was the lynchings of three black black businessmen. She left Memphis shortly before reporting on it in the newspaper.
“I personally think she knew something was going to happen because she had that column published after she left town,” Duster said. “In retribution, her newspaper office was destroyed. They had a price put out for her head. The rumors said that people were staked out at the train station in Memphis waiting for her to get off the train so they could kill her.”
She moved to New York where she once again became a part-owner of a newspaper called The New York Age. Wells continued to report on lynchings across the country and fought for equal rights.
Wells played a critical role in the women’s suffrage movement, especially for black women, as many white women did not include them in their quest for the right to vote.
“It’s important to keep the legacy going,” said Adjo Agbobli, a senior African American and and women’s, gender and sexuality studies double major. “Growing up I knew Ida as someoe who was an anti-lynching advocate. So to learn that she was also a businesswoman — that was great.”
Wells was a woman who refused the treatment of a second-class citizen and stared down the barrel of inequality, refusing to waiver, according to Duster. One quote from “In Her Own Words,” a collection of Wells’ writing from 1893, encapsulates her fearlessness in the fight for equal rights.
“One had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap,” Wells wrote.