I-D-A: Deep ‘Wells’ of Moxie

As we are coming up on to the 100th Anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (Amendment XIX) to the United States Constitution that enfranchised 26 million American women the right to vote, on August 26th, 1920, then why don’t you know the name, Ida B. Wells?

I’m assuming you don’t, and I think that’s a pretty safe assumption. And it’s a darn shame.

It is amazing to me, that in 2020 if asked, most people do not know the name Ida B. Wells & what she accomplished in her life. Her accomplishments are all of even more astounding considering they came at an era in human and American history, where the odds were simply gargantuan for her to succeed.

Here are just some of her milestones.

1880–1900 Ida B. Wells, at age 18, works for several newspapers, writing especially about racial discrimination and lynching in the South.

1893–1894 She travels to Europe, speaking about lynching in the American South.

1895: She publishes A Red Record, a detailed account of lynching in the U.S.

1895: She marries Ferdinand Lee Barnett-(An African-American journalist, lawyer, and civil rights activist based in Chicago in the late Reconstruction era)

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1909 Assists in founding NAACP but withdraws her membership.

Wells was an incredibly fearless teacher, civil rights activist, women’s suffragist, journalist, editor, and publisher.

1990-Posthumously placed on the first-Class U.S. Stamp for Black Heritage Month

Moxie in its purest form.

She was born into slavery, but in my reading never bowed a knee to anyone for even a moment. She possessed a deep understanding of her own inherent worth and dignity, and she poured her considerable intellect, talent, and energy into reshaping the world into a place where the inherent worth and dignity of every human was honored.

It takes moxie to be a young Black woman in 2020, how much more so in 1880?

Well, Wells had monumental moxie, here’s how:

Moxie has strong roots.

Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi just months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father, James, established a successful carpentry business and became active in the Republican Party. He was named a trustee of what is now known as Rust College, where his daughter later became a student.

It was while young Ida was attending a school that tragedy struck. Her family fell victim to yellow fever, and her parents and a younger sibling died. Ida, just a teen herself, took on the responsibility of raising her remaining siblings. With the help of her grandmother, she worked as a teacher and cared for her brothers and sisters. After her grandmother died, she moved with the younger two to Memphis for better opportunities.

Wells showed incredible fortitude in the face of significant challenges. I wonder how much of that she learned from watching her parents and extended family transition out of slavery and start new lives and establish new communities. I imagine her father’s commitment to education and political activism left an indelible mark on his eldest daughter.

Moxie speaks the truth.

Wells worked as a school teacher in Memphis while continuing her own education. She became well-established in the community and began writing for national and local publications using both her own name and a pen name. She often wrote about the injustices against black people in the Jim Crow South. She eventually became the editor and co-owner of The Free Speech and Headlight.

Wells became close with the family of Thomas Moss, the owner of a grocery store in Memphis. Moss co-owned the store with two other black men, and it was quite successful. The success rivaled that of a nearby white-owned store.

One day a dispute between a black child and a white child boiled over into an argument between the owners of both grocery stores. The argument escalated into the lynching of Moss and the store’s other two co-owners.

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The violent murder of her friend at the hands angry white men set Wells on a path to investigate lynchings across the South. The result of her investigations were two pamphlets — Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record — that laid bare the lie that Blacks were lynched because they somehow “deserved” it, but rather that lynching was a form of terrorism levied to “keep them in their place.” The lynchings’ main purpose was so white people could undermine the social and economic progress of Blacks.

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“Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so,” said Wells.

The ground-breaking work was thorough and damning and could have cost Wells her life. A mob attacked and burned her offices and press to the ground; fortunately, she was away on business and escaped harm.

If simply being successful in business could get a Black person shot dead or worse, imagine what an angry mob might have done to a bold young woman who exposed that ugly sin to the world. Still, Wells was undaunted.

“One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap,” said Wells.

Moxie won’t march at the back of the parade.

… and it won’t give up its seat, either.

Wells gained notoriety early in life when she refused to give up her first-class train seat to a white passenger. The conductor threw her off the train. She promptly filed a lawsuit against the railroad and won a judgment in her favor of $500. The railroad won on appeal, however, and Wells was ordered to pay court costs. Even worse, the court suggested that she instigated the whole affair simply for the purpose of causing trouble.

The loss of the case hardly dissuaded Wells from taking her rightful place. Years later, as she marched for women’s suffrage, white suffragists attempted to segregate their ranks in a protest march, placing whites at the front of the parade and Blacks at the rear. Undaunted, Wells positioned herself along the parade route and jumped in with the white delegation as it passed by, linking arms with two sympathetic white suffragists. Nobody was going to put Wells in the back of the parade.

It would take literally volumes to even begin to tell Wells’ story adequately. If I had the chance to interview her, I’d ask her about her travels across Europe seeking allies to put pressure on the US to end lynching. I’d ask her about her relationship with her husband, Ferdinand Barnett, who seemed in every way her match. I’d ask her what it was like to be a working mother at the turn of the last century, traveling the speaking circuit with an infant in tow. I’d ask her how it felt to look back at her life’s work and to know how effective she’d been in defending Blacks against violence and advocating for women’s suffrage.

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But mostly, I’d want to know the source of her courage; her Moxie? Was it her unshakable faith in God? Was it her parents’ strength and convictions? How does one stand up against a system so thoroughly stacked against them?

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Ida B. Wells’ Wikipedia Page:

Ferdinand Lee Barnett’s Wikipedia Page:

NAACP’s Wikipedia Page:

19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s Wikipedia Page:

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