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Americans Who Tell the Truth :: Ida B. Wells

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Robert Shetterly's portrait of Ida B. Wells
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“I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said.”
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Ida B. Wells
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88 of 100
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Journalist, Anti-Lynching Crusader, Women’s Rights Advocate (1862—1931)

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, just months prior to emancipation in 1862. Her parents died of yellow fever when she was 14, and Wells, though minimally educated, began teaching to support her seven younger sisters and brothers. She somehow managed to keep her family together, graduate from Rust College and secure a teaching position in Memphis in 1888.

When she was 22, Wells defied a conductor’s order in Tennessee to move to a segregated railroad car and was forcibly removed. She won a lawsuit (later overturned) against the railroad and, from that point on, worked consistently to overcome injustices to people of color and to women. In 1889 she became co-owner of a Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight. Her editorials protesting the lynching of three black friends led to a boycott of white businesses, the destruction of her newspaper office and threats against her life. Undeterred, she carried her anti-lynching crusade to Chicago and published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, which documented racial lynching in America.

In 1895 she married Ferdinand L. Barnett, attorney and owner of the Conservator, Chicago’s first black newspaper, and hyphenated her name to Wells-Barnett. Though married and eventually the mother of four, Wells-Barnett continued to write and organize. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), marched in the parade for universal suffrage in Washington, D.C. (1913) and established the Negro Fellowship League for black men and the first kindergarten for black children in Chicago.

Though her crusade for Congress to pass anti-lynching laws did not succeed during her lifetime, her efforts as a writer and activist dedicated to social change and justice bore fruit in many areas and established her as one of the most forceful and remarkable women of her time. Ida B. Wells died in Chicago. She once said: “One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

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See the full set of Robert Shetterly's portraits at www.americanswhotellthetruth.org.

Tools for Teaching: see the acompanying curriculum materials with suggestions on how to use the portraits and biographies of these American truth-tellers in your classroom.
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