Ida B Wells: The Story of America’s First Black Female Investigative Journalist
In part one of our series celebrating her 155th birthday, the great grandson of Wells tells the story of how the pioneering reporter risked her life to report on lynchings and racism during the tumultuous period of Reconstruction
Taya Graham: She was born into slavery but ended up becoming one of the country’s most influential journalists. Her reporting on lynchings and racism were a beacon of light during the reconstruction, and her advocacy for racial equality is a message that still resonates today. I’m talking about Ida B. Wells, the legendary writer and commentator on race and racism.
Her journalism career was sparked by an act of defiance. Removed from a train after she refused to sit in a section reserved for coloreds, Ida wrote about it and the article sent shock waves across the country and launched a career that transformed the way we talk about the black experience in America. This weekend, relatives are planning a [151st] celebration for Ida. She’s also the namesake of the Ida B. restaurant opening at The Real News headquarters in Baltimore City, Maryland. To help us learn about this renowned journalist, I’m joined by her great grandson, Daniel Duster.
Mr. Duster, just to start off with, could you give us a little overview of Ida’s career, what she’s accomplished and why we’re still talking about her today?
Daniel Duster: As you know, she was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, 1862, to slaves. The first thing that her parents did when slavery ended was to take all the children to school. She was the oldest of eight. As a result of her being educated, what happened then … She was born in 1862. 1878, yellow fever really decimated large parts of the South, so both of her parents died and one of her younger siblings died as a result. At the age of 16, she decided to get a job as a school teacher to help take care of her family. It was a very bold move in that, at the age of 16 she was taking care of five younger siblings. Another sibling had passed away almost after childbirth, so it was her and five other siblings. At the age of 16, to decide to do that, to me is incredible. At the age of 48, if somebody said, “Can you take care of four kids starting right now,” I’d be more than tepid about it.
She got a job as a school teacher, used to go travel by train to the school during the week and would come home on the weekends. The family did receive some support from others, but she was the primary breadwinner in the family at that time. Later on, she moved to Memphis to become a school teacher there, and did that for several years. In 1884, she was on the rail car. And after slavery, supposedly everything was equal, but in Tennessee, they went back … The laws were kind of up to the state, so what had been open seating for everyone became a Jim Crow law where they said blacks needed to move to a different car. She had purchased a first class ticket and the conductor came and said, “Hey, look, you need to move,” and she was like, “No, this is first class, I’m staying in this car.” The conductor tried to forcibly remove her and she bit him and put up a struggle.
Taya Graham: Wow.
Daniel Duster: At this age she was literally like 5’1″, 110 pounds, so a petite woman at that time, and it took the conductor and two other men to forcibly remove her from the rail car. When that happened, actually the rest of the passengers cheered. She put up a fight. She was literally clothes torn, some bruises and scratches, and she’s highly upset. She’s pissed. She decides to sue the Tennessee Railroad and actually won. She won $500. That was later overturned and she ended up having to pay $200 later on in court costs. That was one of her first experiences really saying, “Things aren’t fair. I want justice.” Fast forward a few years later, she was still in Memphis, school teacher, and wrote an article about the disparate and unfair practices of the schools because the schools were segregated. She said the white schools were receiving this amount of funding and better buildings, better books, and the black schools received less funding, less resources. We don’t hear about that today, do we?
She wasn’t fired, but her contract was not renewed for the next teaching season. She was somewhat forced into doing something on her own. Because she was educated and had good writing skills and public speaking skills, she became a journalist for the Memphis Free Speech, and actually ended up purchasing the Memphis Free Speech, so she was part owner of that. Then in 1892, she had three friends who were lynched, and these were upstanding men in the community, Thomas Moss, Will Stewart, Calvin McDonald, who were lynched. She was so close to Thomas Moss she was actually godmother to his child. She knew these men very well and knew that they were upstanding men, and at the time, we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have much in the way of media, so whatever was printed in the paper, people tended to believe.
When other lynchings were printed, it’s like, okay well the … Especially black men, most of those were accusations of rape or endangering a white woman or white people. When she read those stories, she believed it. When reading about … She was out of town when the lynching happened in Memphis, and she was like, “No, these men are upstanding guys in the community.” What happened was, two of them were store owners. The People’s Grocery in Memphis, and there was a racist white store owner that had a store that was just across the way from that store. Bottom line is, there was conflict, things escalated, the racist white people in the town said they were going to burn down The People’s Grocery, so some black men took arms, there were some shots fired and it ended up that a white guy ended up getting shot.
They rounded up all the black men that they could in the town and put them in jail for a few days, and there was a black militia that actually came to Memphis jail to protect them. After they found out the white guy was going to live, they figured, okay, this is good, we’ll leave. When the black militia left, they went and got, again the two store owners and Thomas Moss. Took them out to a place called The Curve, which I’ve actually been there and it’s still got an eerie feeling to it. Nothing’s grown in that area. There’s no business and it’s still got a macabre feeling to it. Hearing about that and knowing that the men were upstanding men, she was like, “Hey, somebody’s got to do something about this.” She investigated that lynching and found out that they were a lot of the prominent people in town who were involved in the lynching.
She started to investigate other lynchings, so she was kind of America’s first investigative reporter, if you will. You didn’t have people that went out and challenged what was printed in the paper. She investigated over 200 lynchings in the South during those early … This was 1892 when it happened, so during that early timeframe, she did some investigations and found out that, wow, a lot of these accusations of rape didn’t actually happen, or sometimes it may have been consensual. She published one document on that during that timeframe and then later on published another document.
Taya Graham: How was her work on lynchings initially received? What kind of impact did it have when it was published?
Daniel Duster: It had a very dangerous effect for her in that she got threats routinely. She went out and bought firearms, so she believed in the right to carry a gun. She was like, “Hey, if I’m going to go down, somebody else is going to go down with me.” She had influence across the South, especially. When she wrote the last investigative article about the lynchings, she happened to be in New York at the time and it’s suspected that she, in publishing that article, she knew that all hell was going to break loose, so she decided not to be in town. The people in Memphis went and destroyed her newspaper. They said, “Hey, if whoever wrote this article comes back, we’re going to lynch them too.” She was directly impacted. Again, things that we don’t consider are the life threats, but also the financial impact of … She had a business that brought about income and that was destroyed.
She happened to be in New York at the time, then went to Chicago and met a guy by the name of Ferdinand Barnett who was a prominent lawyer in Chicago, and he was a lot to do with civil rights as well. He was a widower. His first wife was very educated and powerful woman and Ferdinand said that he wanted a fiery woman that he wanted to marry again, so when he met Ida, he was like, “Okay, you’re the one.” They met at the World’s Fair, which was in Chicago 1893, and Ida was wanting to boycott the World’s Fair because of the lack of presence of the negro in the fair. She and Frederick Douglass were at odds. Another thing that happens in history is that we kind of assume that the prominent leaders got along or had similar philosophies and in this instance, that was not the case. She and Frederick Douglass kind of like Malcolm and Martin, wanted freedom but willing to do different things in order to do it.
Frederick Douglass’ mindset was, if I deserve a loaf of bread and you have a loaf, if you give me half then that’s good, that’s progress. Ida was like, no I deserve a whole loaf of bread and you give me half, you still owe me another half. They went back and forth about how to approach the racism that was happening in the country at the time and whether to boycott the World’s Fair, whether to be at … Frederick was like, “Let’s have a positive presence,” and she was like, “No, let’s boycott and distribute pamphlets indicating that this is not fair and this is how the negro is treated in America.” She did a lot of things like that to bring to light what was happening in America. After [inaudible] she actually traveled to Europe to instigate boycotts against the U.S. At the time, again, the U.S. was the largest exporter of cotton, so she went to England and Scotland to really bring light to what was happening.
Again, what was happening with lynchings, it was really, in my estimation, America’s first form of domestic terrorism because it was about … During slavery, you can control black people, the negro through slavery. After slavery, there was no legal way to do that. How do you control somebody? With fear and intimidation. And that was what lynching was about, was fear and intimidation. That’s why it was always a public spectacle, hanging, sometimes dragging the victims through the streets, whether by horses or … Sending a message that, if you step out of line, this could happen to you too. Oftentimes, they’d take pictures of the lynchings, kind of like if you see somebody who goes on a fishing adventure and they got a big Florida marlin and they’re standing like, “Hey, look what I have here.” This is what they do with lynching victims.
You’d have crowds of tens, hundreds, even thousands that would witness lynchings and often it was a family event. There are several photographs with little girls and boys with their mothers and fathers witnessing the lynching. She took these pictures over to Europe and said, “Hey look, this is what’s happening. We need to boycott,” and so bringing shame to America, because America is founded on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and freedom and justice for all. She was like, “No, so the justice is not happening for the negro in America.” Those are some of the prominent things that launched her career, launched and forced it and gave her passion about justice and against lynching. Take a pause there and see if you have any other questions.
Taya Graham: Sure. As an educated black woman, as a successful black woman, wasn’t she under, essentially constant threat of death? I mean, her three friends were lynched, essentially because they were successful black businessmen.
Daniel Duster: Absolutely. That was, again, the challenge, so going back to her newspaper being destroyed, and then coming to Chicago. She did all of her activism, really, on her own. She got some financing from a few folks early on, but it was largely, that’s what she did because she had passion for it. Again, the danger behind it is that she didn’t return to the South for years, for decades, because of fear for what would happen. Those are, again, important things that happened. I was just talking to a group of young men today asking about … I was at a venue that happened to have a picture of Ida B. Wells in the background and I asked the same comparison. I was like, “What’s Rosa Parks known for?” It’s like, “Oh, starting the civil rights movement.” I talk about, I think America’s done a disservice to itself, to our people, by not talking openly about the atrocities that have happened in the country. We’ve got a barbaric, violent, sadistic past.
Taya Graham: Yes.
Daniel Duster: To acknowledge that and say, “Hey, look, we’re sorry for it,” and again, I think it’s natural for people to do so. If you were to say, “Hey, Dan Duster, write your biography,” there’s some things that if I didn’t like it, I may not include. Right?
Taya Graham: Right.
Daniel Duster: America’s done the same thing, and again, the history at that point was largely written by white men, and so not only were the atrocities that happened in America minimized, but the success and the courage of black people, and especially black women, were not going to be accounted for because that’s white man’s history.
Taya Graham: In her piece on lynch law, she mentions that most of the media outlets were owned and controlled by white Americans, like you said, history being written by white men. 100 years later, very little has changed. We have a few minority-owned media outlets, but the don’t have the far-reaching power of their white counterparts. The narrative is still controlled by white editors at white-owned stations, white-owned distribution channels. How important do you think it is that black people tell other black people’s stories? How important is it to have black journalists?
Daniel Duster: Both black journalists, and quality journalists, so that’s the other thing is to have quality reporting and a depiction of what’s happening, so again, the challenge in the U.S. is, you’ve got over 90% of the media owned by six companies. That’s going to have heavy influence. For there to be quality reporting, whether it’s a black owned media or one of the major stations to say, “Here’s what we’re going to report,” and give an angle that reflects the truth, or at least the truth that isn’t told by the other stories. As with the court, you can say there’s the truth and the whole truth. Sometimes they tell the truth, but it’s a portion of the truth, where the whole truth is going to give you the actual picture of what happens.