Ida B. Wells

Honored by:The African American Studies Program
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The African American Studies Program at Iowa State University is proud to commemorate the lives of Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Bessie Smith. These women shaped the political, cultural, and social life of the U.S.; we hope that their lives and legacies will be an inspiration to all.


Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, the first child of Jim Wells and Lizzie Warrenton. Her parent's experience of slavery made them champions of education and equal rights, and they passed this commitment to their eight children. In 1878, Wells' parents died in a yellow fever epidemic and sixteen-year old Wells took responsibility for her family. She taught in country schools and later moved to Memphis where the wages were higher, taking some of her siblings with her. In Memphis, Wells began her career as an activist. In 1884, she took a seat in the ladies' coach of a train at section that was reserved for white women. When the conductor demanded that she move to the segregated car, she resisted. The conductor eventually forced her from the coach and ejected her from the train. Wells sued the railroad, charging that the train's accommodations were unequal and did she was forced to pay first-class fare for second-class accommodations. She was eventually awarded damages but the case was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wells continued teaching but also became a journalist. Her works, often published under the pen name of "Iola," were nationally syndicated. In 1889, she became part owner of a Memphis paper, Free Speech and Headlight; in her writings and later in her editorial policy she highlighted the poor conditions of education for African-Americans. Because of her criticism, she lost her teaching position. In 1892, three African-American businessmen were lynched in Memphis. This lynching shocked Wells into action and she began her life-long project of investigating the causes of lynching. She linked lynching with economic control of African-Americans by whites and undermined the common assertion that lynching was a justified punishment for African-American men who had raped white women. When she published her arguments, the office of the Free Speech and Headlight was destroyed and Wells went into exile from the South. Ida Wells continued to speak out against lynching and went on speaking tours through the northern U.S. and Britain. She eventually made Chicago her home. Wells linked work for African-American's rights with work for women's rights. She helped form the influential National Association of Colored Women in 1896. She was committed to suffrage for men and women and argued that African-American men and women needed to cooperate to achieve suffrage for all. In 1913, she formed the Alpha Suffrage Club and she continued to criticize racial discrimination within the women's suffrage moment. In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand Barnett, owner of the newspaper the Chicago Conservator. Together they had four children in addition to his two children from his first marriage. Throughout her life, she continued social change and was known as a controversial and thoughtful activist. She continued to write and lecture about racial injustice, sexism, lynching, and the necessity of a strong African-American community. She supported community and cultural organizations for African-Americans, ranging from orchestras to social reform societies. Wells died in 1931 in Chicago.


Paver Inscription:

"African American
Sojourner Truth
Ida B. Wells
Bessie Smith"