Letter to the Editor: Ida Wells an inspiring heroine for International Women’s Day

I invite each of you to reflect and express gratitude for a woman who has touched your life. Here is part of the story of a woman (Shall I say “herstory”?), who has changed how I view the power of writing, speaking, and acting on one’s leadings.
This African American woman’s name is Ida B. Wells. She lived from 1862 until 1931. She was born in Holly Springs, Miss. Ida was officially a slave for about the first six months of her life. The Emancipation Proclamation changed her status.
Education was highly valued in Ida’s family. After the Civil War, Ida’s father was involved in the Freedmen’s Aid Society. He helped start a school for newly freed slaves. It was named Shaw University. Children often attended school with their mothers. “Ida’s own mother did so, to learn how to read the Bible and to learn how to write, so that she could inquire about her family in Virginia” (Paula Giddings, “Ida, A Sword Among Lions,” 2008, p. 29). Ida’s mother told her children, most likely repeatedly, that it was their “job to go to school and learn all (they) could” (ibid., p. 29).
Ida’s life changed dramatically when she was 16 years old. She was at her grandmother’s helping with the work of picking the first fall cotton. Neighbors from Holly Springs came to visit. They gave her a letter which told the sad news. Both her parents and her nine-month-old brother died from yellow fever. Ida traveled back to Holly Springs to be with her siblings. Ida had three sisters and two brothers.
Since Ida was the eldest, she felt a responsibility to her family. Ida found a job teaching six miles outside of Holly Springs. “There were no passable roads. She was forced to travel by mule and remain with local families for the remainder of the week” (ibid., p. 38). Ida came home on weekends and attended to the needs of her brothers and sisters. Her grandmother also helped during the week.
Then Ida’s sister Eugenia died. Eugenia was the eldest of her siblings. Ida’s grandmother had a stroke. After two years, Ida moved with her two remaining sisters to Memphis, Tenn. They could live with Aunt Fanny. Aunt Fanny was Ida’s mom’s sister. Ida found a job teaching in Woodstock, Tenn. Ida traveled there by train. Life should have been easier, however challenges continued to emerge.
And now you need to know of some history. In 1875, the federal government passed the Civil Rights Bill. It “had given blacks the right to sue in state courts, if they were discriminated against because of race, in public accommodations” (ibid., p. 48). Then the state legislature of Tennessee passed the nation’s first Jim Crow law, “specifying that proprietors had the right to exclude whom they wished from public or private accommodations” (ibid., p. 48).
The first branch of the Ku Klux Klan was formed in Pulaski, Tenn., on Dec. 24, 1865. It initially was a “vehicle for white southern resistance to reconstruction-era policies aimed at establishing political and economic equality for blacks” (www.history.com). President Grant was generally not held in high regard by blacks in Memphis. He “refused the Tennessee governor’s request to deploy troops against the Ku Klux Klan” (Paula Giddings, “Ida, A Sword Among Lions,” 2008, p. 49). How is justice ever achieved?
Trains were supposed to be separate but equal. In 1884, Ida was riding in the “white” ladies’ car. She had a first class ticket. “There was smoking, drunkenness, and a white man in the colored car” (ibid., p. 65). A conductor told Ida that she had to move to the colored car. Ida refused. Ida hooked her feet under the seat in front of her. “The conductor attempted to physically pull her out of her seat, tearing the sleeve off her dress in the process” (ibid., p. 62). Ida was left to defend herself by “scratching the conductor with her nails, and then bit his hands deeply enough to draw blood” (ibid., p. 62).
Eventually the conductor received help from other passengers. Ida chose to leave the train. When Ida returned to Memphis, she sought out legal help. She won the case on the circuit court level. The headline in a local newspaper read, “A Darky Damsel Obtains a Verdict for Damages. . .What It Cost to Put a Colored Teacher in a Smoking Car. . .$500” (ibid., p. 67). The decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Ida started to write articles and letters to the editor. They were published in black newspapers and periodicals. She eventually became the co-owner of a newspaper called Free Speech. While Ida was in Natchez, Miss., on March 9, 1892, “her friend Tommie Moss had been lynched in Memphis with two other men who worked with him in the People’s Grocery: Calvin McDowell, the grocery’s manager, and Will Henry Stewart, a clerk” (ibid., p.177). Ida was devastated.
However, she knew the way she could fight back was using the written and spoken word. The anti-lynching campaign was launched. “After the Memphis lynchings Ida began visiting the scenes of lynchings where she interviewed eyewitnesses or families of victims” (ibid., p. 207). She eventually wrote a book called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” In late May, while Ida was away in New York, “leading citizens (of Memphis) entered the vacated offices of the Free Speech, destroyed the type and furnishings, and left a note behind saying that anyone attempting to publish the paper again would be punished by death” (ibid., p. 234).
Ida’s response, “Having my paper destroyed, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth, I felt that I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth now that I was where I could do so freely” (ibid., p. 211).
Ida carried on for the rest of her life using the power of the written and spoken word. I hope that I have piqued your interest in learning more about Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s life. You know how to do that. Thank you for listening so far.
You can honor two more women, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Listen to them sing Abel Meeropol’s song, “Strange Fruit.”
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”
And one last idea, if you want to help our healing process as a nation, consider supporting the Equal Justice Initiative, 122 Commerce St., Montgomery, AL 36104.
Patricia Heather-Lea

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