This week in history: Ida B. Wells dies at 62

Chicago Daily News reporter Frank L. Hayes gave the famed civil rights activist and journalist a proper obituary.

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When the South became too dangerous for her, Ida B. Wells headed to Chicago and continued her crusade.


As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

On March 25, 1931, civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett died in Chicago. During her career, she documented lynchings in the South, championed universal suffrage and published dozens of articles and pamphlets denouncing racism, classism and misogyny.

And yet, Chicago Daily News reporters wrote so little about Wells-Barnett during her lifetime. From 1903, when her name first appears in print, to the time of her death, Wells-Barnett’s name only popped up in short blurbs informing the public about upcoming lectures or new committees and clubs Wells-Barnett would join or lead. No one wrote a profile on the busy activist or sought her reactions to the news of the day.

Wells-Barnett’s obituary, written by Frank L. Hayes on the day of her death, would become the longest article — almost a full column long on the seventh page — documenting her myriad accomplishments.

Hayes cited Wells-Barnett as “one of the early advocates of racial equality,” noting her long history of activism both stateside and abroad. Her passing closed a full career, he said.

Born in Mississippi in 1862, Wells-Barnett moved to Memphis as an adult and worked as the editor of the Memphis Free Speech, where she reported on lynchings. Hayes wrote that “stormy incidents during her editorship of the paper in 1892 had much to do with arousing her lifelong passion against lynching,” and she received death threats for her anti-lynching reports and editorials.

When the South became too dangerous for her, the civil rights activist headed to Chicago “about world’s fair time,” Hayes said, and continued her crusade. In fact, “her admirers” credited her as the main reason that Illinois had not seen one single lynching since her arrival.

“Mrs. Barnett went before Charles S. Deneen in 1919 when he was governor, and asked him to refuse reinstatement to a sheriff of Alexander County who had failed to prevent the lynching of a [Black person] there. After hearing all the testimony, Gov. Deneen refused reinstatement to the sheriff,” Hayes wrote.

The message became clear to sheriffs statewide: either enforce anti-lynching laws or lose your job.

Her influence extended beyond Illinois. Wells-Barnett’s anti-lynching lectures in England were said to have influenced “the formation of an anti-lynching committee headed by the duke of Argyle,” Hayes said.

Wells-Barnett also supported universal suffrage and launched a number of young people’s clubs and women’s clubs, including the first women’s club for Black women, Hayes said. Many of the clubs expanded to other cities, and the Colored City Federation of Women’s Clubs grew out of the Black women’s club in Chicago.

While her campaigns for civil rights never ceased, Wells-Barnett led an active personal life. In 1895, she married lawyer and activist Ferdinand Lee Barnett Sr., a man Hayes described as “probably the first [Black person] to hold important public office in Chicago.” Barnett served as assistant state’s attorney during the Deneen administration. Together, the two had four children, plus two sons from Barnett’s previous marriage.

Wells-Barnett received a proper send-off from her community the following Monday at the Community Center Church, “where she was a teacher and social worker,” Hayes wrote.

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