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By Jennifer Watts
As a member of the education team at the Tennessee State Museum, I get the opportunity each summer to work with teachers all over the state on professional development. We offer insight on Tennessee history and help teachers better engage with core curriculum. This year, as part of our summer institute, I presented a class on Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the journalist, Civil Rights pioneer and suffragist who began her career in Memphis. The class focused on three stories from Wells-Barnett’s life, and how they influenced her work for social change. While it’s not practical to post the full script here, we thought it might be helpful for readers, and teachers who could not join us for the class, to know about those three events. The stories I have chosen, I believe, provide an insight into the life experiences that drove her to activism.
Portrait of Ida B. Wells by Larry Walker (Tennessee State Museum collection, 94.91)
Ida vs. Railroad Company
In 1884, Ida filed a lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southeastern Railroad citing discrimination based on her race. She had been traveling to Woodstock, Tennessee from Memphis when she was assaulted by a train conductor for her refusal to leave a train car that was designated as a “whites only” car. She had purchased a first-class ticket and expected to sit in the designated car, but because of her race the conductor asked her to move to the forward car segregated to blacks. She refused to give up her seat and the conductor, with the help of other passengers, forcibly removed her. She eventually left the train and did not continue with her journey. She filed a lawsuit against the train company and was awarded a $500 settlement. The decision was overturned, however, by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1887. In response, she became more outspoken and wrote more editorials on the racial injustices she experienced and witnessed in the south.
Pages from Lawsuit filed by Ida B. Wells against the railroad (Tennessee State Library and Archives #39567)
Ida and the Anti-lynching Campaign
In 1892, a very dear friend of Ida’s was lynched by an angry mob of men in Memphis, Tennessee. The lynching of Thomas “Tom” Moss, along with two additional men, became known as the “Lynching at the Curve.” Moss was a partial owner of the People’s Grocery, a co-operative store operated by African Americans in a predominantly African American community. The store was a great success. As a result, jealousy from the white-owned stores nearby grew. One of those rival store owners, William Barrett, went to a local judge and had the store declared a public nuisance. The judge deputized him and gave him authorization to shut it down. Barrett and a group of plain-clothed deputies marched on the store. In the confusion, shots were fired and several men were injured. Moss and his two friends were arrested and taken to the local jail. In the early morning hours of March 9, the three men were forcibly removed from their cells and shot to death. Their bodies were left where they fell.
The Peoples Grocery (Historic Memphis Collection)
Ida B. Wells and the Moss Family (University of Chicago Library)
Ida was enraged by the death of her friend. She put her anger into writing more and researching the atrocities faced and experienced by African Americans. She even encouraged them to leave the south and travel west. Unfortunately, Ida’s outspokenness drew negative attention. In May of 1892, her newspaper office on Beale Street was destroyed and she was warned not to return, or she too would be lynched. Ida was in New York at the time and chose not to return, but instead moved to Chicago, where she fought harder against racial injustices.
Votes for Women
By 1910, Ida had expanded her activism to include voting rights for women. She knew the power the vote could have on the changes she sought. In 1913, Ida helped found the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago. Shortly thereafter, Ida led a group of about 60 women to Washington, D.C. to participate in a parade organized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s Constitutional Union. They were informed that the parade was to be segregated and that space for her group was set aside at the back of the procession. When the day came to march, Ida stood on the sidelines, but as the Illinois delegation walked past, she joined in the procession and took her place at the front of the delegation. Thankfully there was a photographer nearby who caught the moment for posterity.
Ida B. Wells marching with the Illinois delegation (Chicago Daily Tribune)
Our life experiences and how we respond to them define who we are. I have found that by looking at these specific stories from Ida’s life, the motivation behind her dedication to righting the wrongs of social injustices are clearly defined. She met every challenge head on and did not back down from her hope for a better world for her gender and her race.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett is featured in the Tennessee State Museum’s permanent exhibitions, Tennessee Time Tunnel and Change and Challenge (1870-1945). She is also highlighted prominently in the Museum’s new temporary exhibition, Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote, which explores women’s rights activities leading up to and after Tennessee’s historic vote to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Jennifer Watts is a Tennessee State Museum education specialist
Ball, Nathaniel C. “Memphis and the Lynching at the Curve”. University of Memphis: The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute. September 30, 2015. https://blogs.memphis.edu/benhooksinstitute/2015/09/30/memphis-and-the-lynching-at-the-curve/
Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1998.
The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture. Carroll Van West editor in chief. The Tennessee Historical Society, 1998.