Ida B. Wells’s life is well-told in To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay. Ida B. Wells is one of those African American leaders whose name is familiar, but I didn’t know enough about her. Mia Bay’s excellent biography solves the that problem. Much of it is based on Wells’ own unfinished autobiography. This is a clear, focused book that fills a gap in civil rights history.
Wells was born a slave during the Civil War. Her parents were sort of middle class by reconstruction standards, and they made sure Wells received an education. Although she never received a college degree, Wells taught school for much of her early life. Her relatively secure life was shattered when her parents both died and left her an orphan at 14 with a bunch of younger siblings. Wells succeeded in keeping her family together and supported them by teaching school. All that is remarkable enough, but then her life gets amazing.
From he beginning, Wells had a firm sense of who she was and her own personal liberties, so she didn’t hesitate to sue a railroad that refused to allow her to seat in the ladies section despite the first class ticket she had purchased. The litigation was protracted and, although Wells prevailed at the trial court level, ultimately she lost on appeal. It is really hard to imagine an African American woman having the nerve to sue a railroad for not treating her as she deserved in the late 1870’s. Wells was tough and she was determined.
Wells was a writer and ultimately ran an African American newspaper in Memphis. At the same time she found her lifelong cause – anti-lynching. She called out lynching for what it was and never let go of the subject. It wasn’t a particularly popular topic, but she pushed it relentlessly and actually helped save some potential victims. Thanks to her anti-lynching activities she was run out of Memphis and her newspaper was burned out. Along the way she became friends with Frederick Douglass and knew many of the other civil rights leaders of her day. She and Booker T. Washington never got along — he was a sell-out in her view. As the NAACP and other civil rights organizations were formed, Wells was frequently left behind. She was female and she was not of the college educated African American elite of her day. When others saw promise in enlisting white allies, Wells blazed on with her pamphlets and her lectures. She never got the memo that she was supposed to sit down and shut up and let the men take the lead. In that light, she was a precursor of Diane Nash, the amazing civil rights activist of the 1960’s who never got her due as the likes of Martin Luther King, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson took center stage. Unlike Nash, Wells refused to fade into the background.
Wells lectured all over the country and in Britain. She ultimately settled in Chicago where she married in her 30’s and had four children. Supported by her family, she kept up her political activities in Chicago and nationally, even as she had to take time out to make a living. As a last point, she also engaged in direct social services activity for her community in Chicago and stymied lynching in Illinois — she was no “mere” journalist and lecturer.
There is obviously much more to her story. I recommend this book about a strong, focused woman who was insufficiently appreciated in her day or in the years since.