The end of the nineteenth century has been called one of the lowest points of the Negro’s existence in the United States by some. The Supreme Court had emasculated Charles Sumner’s 1875 Civil Rights Act and had approved “separate but equal” facilities. Southern states were expanding Jim Crow laws and disfranchising Negroes. Anti-Negro activities included a large number of lynchings, about two every week, and newspapers’ articles which hopefully predicted that the Negro race would eventually disappear.
One of the most striking women in our history, Ida B. Wells, came to the force at that time. A Memphis teacher who became a leader of the anti-lynching crusade, she reported the shocking truths about lynching in her newspaper, Free Speech. Her life was threatened and she wore a brace of pistols for protection.
IDA B. WELLS BARNETT
In 1892, when she was 23 she wrote about the lynching of three Memphis Negroes. Her article named the lynchers, pointed out that the motive was fear of competition from the Negroes, who were businessmen. Her office was destroyed and she was unable to return to the city.
After a lecture tour in the United States and England she continued her protests. As chairman of the Anti-Lynching bureau of the Afro-American Council, she disagreed with Frederick Douglass’ beliefs that most lynchings were to protect the virtue of White Southern women. In 1895 she published “A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, 1982-1893-1894.” The pamphlet was “Respectfully submitted to 19th Century Civilization in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” It included details of lynchings and other information which underscored the irony of this phrase. This pioneering effort in the field of statistics on lynchings was a forerunner of similar work done at the Tuskegee Institute and by the NAACP.
In 1898 she headed a group that protested to President McKinley about lynchings. The group declared that if the United States could protect Americans in foreign countries, it could defend citizens at home. This plea proved as futile as had Douglass’ earlier demands to Presidents Johnson and Harrison.
She sided with W. E. B. Du Bois against Booker T. Washington’s views that economics, not politics or protest would free the Negroes. She worked with Du Bois and others to form the NAACP. It was later proven that Negroes needed both, politics and own businesses, to truly be free.
She continued her crusading activities for another 22 years, working until her death in 1931. Her 40 year fight for fair treatment for the Negro earned her a prominent place in the ranks of American leaders.