College of Communications and Fine Arts Art Museum of the University of Memphis
Ida B. Wells

Teacher, journalist, and lecturer, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was renowned for voicing the horrors of lynching which she barely escaped herself when the boycotts she advised in the Free Speech and Headlight (local black newspaper, later the Free Speech, for which she began writing in 1887 and of which she became part owner) brought downtown Memphis business to a near standstill. Orphaned at sixteen, along with seven younger brothers and sisters, she began teaching, first in rural Mississippi near her Holly Springs birthplace and later in Memphis, to keep her family together.

She pioneered the legal defense of civil rights by suing a railroad company for forcing her out of the first-class carriage for which she had paid. When her articles critical of "the Memphis Board of Education for separate, inferior Negro schools led to her dismissal as a teacher in 1891," she began writing full-time. Using the pen name Iola, she reported racial discrimination. Following the 1892 lynching in Memphis of three young black businessmen, she wrote that "Negroes should leave the city" or boycott the streetcars. When the Free Speech was blamed for the paralysis of Memphis business, "A white mob demolished her offices and threatened to lynch her if they found her" (Historic Black Memphians 23).

She fled to New York, becoming an international figure in the fight against lynching: "She compiled the first statistical pamphlet on lynching in 1895, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Cases of Lynching in the United Sates, 1892-1894. Her speeches in England were influential in the formation of the powerful British Anti-Lynching Society" (HBM 23). As convener of and speaker at the conference that spawned the NAACP, she organized (1913) the Alpha Suffrage Club, the earliest black women's political group. In 1895, she married Ferdinand Barnett, attorney and editor-founder of the Chicago Conservator; they had four children. A Chicago housing project is named in her honor, and in 1990 this civil rights activist was honored by a US postal stamp in celebration of Black History Month.

Dr. Joan Weatherly

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Francis Wright

Myra Dreifus

Juanita Williamson

Annie Cook

Alberta Hunter

Suzanne Scruggs

Julia Hooks

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Last Updated: 2/28/13