Ida B. Wells spent her life unraveling “the old thread bare lie” that lynching was used to “protect white womanhood.” She even wrote those words in a column on May 21, 1892, which led a white mob to destroy her presses and leave a death threat.
But Wells was one of the most fearless women in U.S. history, though she stood less than five feet tall. She didn’t even flinch.
“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
On Thursday, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., became the first in the country dedicated to more than 4,000 lynching victims. It also honors Wells, along with other black women who risked their lives in the fight against racial terror.
The memorial, which includes more than 800 steel monuments bearing the names of thousands of lynching victims, contains a reflection space dedicated to Wells, who with her incisive investigations, detailed reporting and meticulous data revealed lynchings’ barbarism.
Wells was born enslaved in July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Miss., during the Civil War, five months before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
She was the oldest of eight children, and she went on to attend Rust College.
Later, Wells taught in Memphis, trying to help black people obtain an education. And she began writing columns about her lawsuit. Her articles appeared in church newspapers and black weeklies.
Soon, she was offered a regular column in The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, an African American newspaper in Memphis, where she used the money she had saved as a teacher to become a part owner, according to her memoir.
Her anti-lynching campaign would begin in full force five years later, after three of her friends — Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart — opened a grocery in direct competition with a white-owned store in Memphis, according to an Equal Justice Initiative report.
The men were arrested and killed by a white mob. Devastated and outraged by the murders, Wells began her own investigation.
“Like most other Americans, she believed that lynching victims committed crimes, especially rape,” according to the book “Historical Scholars,” published by the State University of New York Press. “However, the three blacks lynched in Memphis had not committed such crimes. Rather they were victims of a scheme by a white grocer in the vicinity who was losing business to them.”
Wells came to the conclusion that many of the rape stories were false, prompting her to write the now-famous editorial published May 21, 1892: “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women.”
The Daily Commercial newspaper in Memphis responded with an editorial, according to the University of Chicago Library collection of Well’s papers: “The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence to the wonderful patience of Southern whites.”
Wells responded by urging black people to get out of Memphis:
“The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival,” she wrote in an editorial, according to "The Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.”
She argued that the city “will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood.”
“For nearly three months, black people left Memphis ‘by the scores and hundreds,’ supported financially by Wells and others who remained in town,” according to an essay in the book. “This continued until the white citizenry, feeling the loss of manual labor and business income, appealed to Wells to halt the exodus. She refused.”
Wells’s anti-lynching crusade for black justice even when she married Ferdinand L. Barnett, the editor of the Chicago Conservator, one of Chicago’s first major African American newspapers. They raised six children together. She continued her campaign until she died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931. She was 68.
“For more than 40 years, Ida B. Wells was one of the most fearless and one of the most respected women in the United States,” wrote historian John Hope Franklin in the foreword to her memoir. “Few defects in American society escaped her notice and her outrage. … She was perhaps the first person to recite the horrors of lynching in lurid detail.”
Eighty-seven years later, the Peace and Justice Memorial in Alabama builds on the work of Wells. The memorial is designed to prompt a national conversation about racial injustice, exposing the awful history of lynching with hundreds of steel monuments that literally sway in the wind, beaten by the elements and the sunlight.