Lately, I find myself thinking about Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Wells comes to my mind every time someone mentions having “outrage fatigue” or declaring the latest political crisis, “outrageous.” In her diary, Wells doesn’t appear to get fatigue. A journalist and public speaker, she spent five decades voicing one of the greatest outrages in American history: the epidemic of lynching in the South that began during the 1890s. I think about her because she never stopped believing in the ability of our country to turn itself around, even though she did not see that happen in her own lifetime.
Technically born a slave, Wells’ earliest memories included freedom, the reunion of families, and the creation of a black community in Holly Springs, Mississippi, during Reconstruction. Perhaps she saw her father vote. Her father did purchase a framed house and worked to support the family, while her mother kept house, even winning a prize for their children’s Sunday-school attendance. Wells was nurtured into the idea that life would be better for African Americans and the key to success was education.
Alas, a yellow fever epidemic struck this promising start to life. More than 400 Holly Springs residents died, and Wells lost both of her parents. At 16, she went to work as a teacher in a country school to support her siblings. Two years later, her Aunt Fanny invited the family to live in Memphis, Tennessee, where she landed a teaching job with better pay.
In comparison to rural Mississippi, Memphis seemed a cosmopolitan place. About 39 percent of the population was African American, and they operated a commercial district that included boarding places, barbershops, saloons, undertaking parlors, eateries, Zion Hall (an auditorium), a men’s fraternal group, and a newspaper. They supported their own churches as well as grocery stores. The future, again, appeared brighter. In this decade African Americans like Wells took the train to visit each other and attend education conferences.
At the same time, though, Tennessee Democrats were re-gaining control of the political system and passed the first segregation law. In September 1883, Ida B. Wells boarded a “colored car” in the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) and saw a drunken white man and smokers. Because she bought a first-class ticket, Wells moved to the first class car and tried to bury her nose in the newspaper. When the conductor came to get tickets, he asked her to move. She refused. When the train paused at a station, she refused again. The conductor tried to physically pull her from the seat but she hooked her feet and bit his hand. With the help of two other passengers, she was dragged to the colored car, but she chose instead to get off the train.
Seventy-one years before Rosa Parks’ famous moment, Ida Wells hired a lawyer to demand justice. At the trial, the conductor acknowledged that neither smoking nor drinking was allowed in the colored car. Numerous testimonies corroborated the presence of smokers and an inebriated man. Others acknowledged that black nurses and nannies often rode in the first class car with their employers. On the stand, Wells appeared calm and petite and dressed like a lady of the time. She won her case and damages of $500.
Although she lost on appeal and the laws of segregation eventually tightened, Wells focused her sense of outrage into the legal system. It is for this reason that I always teach my students about her. Young people tend to see history as an inevitable march of fate, and they need to know that neither segregation nor disenfranchisement came without resistance. They also need to know that white southerners did more than pass laws separating the races: they terrorized African Americans.
In 1889, Memphis papers carried the news that Eliza Woods, a black cook from Jackson, Tennessee, was lynched for poisoning her white employer. The mob that murdered Eliza Woods stripped her naked and riddled her body with bullets based on the fact that the employer was killed by arsenic and Woods had a box of rat poison in her home. Wells was filled with what could be described as true outrage: she was overcome with emotion to the point that she had to pray to God for wisdom and composure as she wrote about the event in her diary. Two years later, the husband of the white woman confessed to killing his wife. Fury returned to Wells, but this time she wrote about the disgrace of lynching in the newspaper, and she exhorted black men everywhere to “rise to their manhood.”
Finding her voice increased Wells’ fame, and she became staff writer and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech. In 1891, another black man was lynched for killing a white man who had intimate relations with the black man’s wife. In retaliation, black men set fire to several homes and barns in the white community. In response, white community members patrolled the streets and tensions in the city grew. A fight between two boys—one white, one black—over a marble game accelerated the situation. The owner of the People’s Grocery came out to defend the black boy, and a fight broke out among adults. The next day, arrests resulted in a shootout at the grocery store. There were more arrests, and then 75 white men surrounded the jail at 2:30 a.m. and dragged three men out of the jail and shot them in a horrific manner. By the next day, gangs of white men roamed the streets shooting at any group of black men, and the Memphis unrest made the front page of the New York Times.
“Tell my people to go West,” were Tommy Moss’s dying words. “There is no justice for you here.” Wells was a close friend of Tommy and his wife, Betty. Although Wells had long protested the mobs that took the law into their one hands, she knew that she needed to do everything in her power to raise awareness about lynching. Eventually, Memphis whites burned the offices of the Memphis Free Speech and Wells was forced into exile because of threats on her life. She moved to Brooklyn. “Having destroyed my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth,” Wells wrote, “I felt I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth now that I was where I could do it freely.”
For the next 10 years, Wells researched the reasons for lynching. She quickly found (using interviews and white newspaper accounts) that the “charges” claimed to justify lynching were untrue. Mobs typically claimed that a black man had raped a white woman, and the horror of this idea to northern audiences prevented the state and federal governments from intervening. Wells was able to compile enough research to prove that the accusations were rarely true. While exiled in New York, she raised money by speaking her truth to public audiences and using the money to publish the Red Record Crying “rape,” she argued, was used to hide hostility toward African American economic and political successes.
More than 100 years later, Wells’ research has been verified. However, at the time it was difficult for the United States to accept a woman as a valid researcher and a credible activist. Booker T. Washington begged her to soft-pedal the complicity of white women in lynching. Carter Woodson left her out of the first history of lynching. W.E.B Dubois invited her to participate in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), then left her name off official records.
From 1890 through the 1930s, Wells continued to speak and write about the truth of lynching. Eventually, she moved to Chicago, married, and had children. She may be the first nursing mother to have ever given a public address. Although she did not receive credit for her achievements in her lifetime, she effectively channeled her outrage and published the truth before anyone else dared.
David J. Ley, PhD, a clinical psychologist and writer for Psychology Today explains that the oft-used phrase “outrage fatigue” is not a diagnosis, but it is a real problem here in the present. Because we are today assaulted with a 24/7 news cycle and cell phones, we experience hurricanes, police shootings, political infighting, and apocalyptic predictions at a rate unprecedented in history. Ley offers good suggestions for “outrage fatigue,” but from the biography of Ida B. Wells I offer a few more. The first is this: what is a true outrage?
Southern lynchings were true outrages. African American men like Sam Hose, in 1899 in Georgia, were killed in broad daylight by a mob who staged it in front of more than a thousand men, women, and children. His body was mutilated and pieces of it were sold as souvenirs. The mob then dumped oil over him and set him on fire while he was still alive. It doesn’t matter whether or not he did commit a crime: No human being in a country governed by law should be treated this way. What anyone tweets about anyone else, however ugly or inappropriate or disrespectful, cannot be compared with this heinous lack of respect for the law and the lives of human beings. When I find myself manipulated into anger by someone’s words, I think it’s worthwhile to put it in perspective in this way.
And there’s more. Ida B. Wells did not take on all of the outrages of her time (child labor, 12-hour work days, tenements, lack of fire codes, to name a few). She focused on one. She did her own research and did not rely solely upon the media of her time. She negotiated support from her husband at a time when women were expected to put all of their energy into their husband’s career. She was a woman of faith, who called on spiritual guidance to give her courage. She believed, despite northern white apathy and lack of action, that law and justice matter, and that they are, in the end, the American way.
Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library
Duster, Alfreda. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B Wells. University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Giddings, Paula. Ida: A Sword Among Lions, Ida B Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
Royser, Jacqueline Jones. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 Second Edition. Bedford/St. Martins, 2016.