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Posted on 04/16/2008


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Fighter
Journalist
Activist
Ida B Wells
Reformer
Born a slave in 1862
Parents and a sibling died during the yellow fever epidemic


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She Would Not Be Silent, Ida B Wells

She Would Not Be Silent, Ida B Wells
[b. 1862 - d. 1931]

Ida B Wells was in England in 1894 when she heard that white Southerners had put a black woman in San Antonio, Texas into a barrel with "nails driven through the sides and then rolled [it] down a hill until she died." The 31 year old Wells, a black Southerner, was seasoned to the widespread phenomenon of mob torture and murder that went by the shorthand "lynching"; in fact, she was abroad on a speaking tour denouncing it. Nonetheless, she shed tears over the latest "outrage upon my people."

Her call to speak out against lynching had come just two years earlier, when a Memphis mob murdered her close friend and neighbor Thomas Moss. The incident started as a dispute among white and black boys playing marbles, but it quickly evolved into an excuse to murder Moss, a successful businessman who was drawing patrons away from a nearby white grocer.

White Southerners explained to Northerners that they lynched only when they had to: when black men threatened, assaulted and raped white women. Wells was determined to expose the lie. As the murders of the woman in the barrel and Thomas Moss attest, white Southerners also killed black women and economically threatening black men. And even when the mobs tore apart a black man who had been found with a white woman, it wasn't always rape. Sometimes, Wells declared in print, the man was not "a despoiler of virtue," but had succumbed "to the smiles of white women." Her editorial Free Speech, the black weekly she co-owned in Memphis, led white residents to destroy the newspaper's office and threaten to kill her. But even after she was forced into exile from the South, she continued to proclaim -- as a banner headline over one of her articles in a New York paper declared in 1892 --- "The Truth About Lynching."

For speaking plainly about rape, sex and murder, Wells lost her home and her livelihood. For the rest of her life, she had to defend her reputation against both white and black people who called her a "negro adventuress" and "Notorious Courtesan." A black newspaper editor suggested that the public should "muzzle" that "animal from Memphis," and the New York Times dubbed her "a slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress."

Wells was an orphan and a poor, single woman who supported her younger brothers and sisters through teaching and journalism. She recognized that "my good name was all that I had in the world," yet she would not be silenced. Wells used words to fight white Southern lynch mobs, an indifferent white Northern public and, sometimes, black critics who felt that her outspokenness undermined their agenda. Southern white supremacy was cruel and crazy, and she was the rare person who could see beyond the cultural insanity in which she was immersed. For that she paid dearly.

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore editorial on a book on Ms. Wells by
Paula J Giddings, "Ida: A Sword Among Lions"

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