One of the marvels of modern society is the honorable position which woman has secured in the affairs of mankind. She is no longer a cipher; she is a positive force. Regnant in the home, a co-ordinate force in the movements which make for human happiness, she must reckon in every accurate estimate of contention or achievement. In what manner she has arisen from the thralldom of ancient times is answered by the grasp which Christianity has secured upon a large portion of mankind. Only in Christian countries has woman secured a measure of equality with the forceful agents that make the world's history. In pagan countries she is still the idol of the harem or the beast of burden for the peasant.
It is a notable fact that in the anti-slavery struggle women contributed almost as largely as men to the moulding of public opinion necessary to the manumission of the slave. Women such as Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, Lydia Maria Childs, Anna Dickinson and others were towers of strength as well as inspiration. The work before the Afro-American, comprehending the intricate problems of his relation as a man and citizen, I feel safe in saying will never be performed as it should be until we have a race of women competent to do more than bear a brood of negative men. That such a womanhood, untainted by the horrible moral malformation and obliquity of slave masters, is already a possibility we have sufficient evidence.
Ida B. Wells, the oldest issue of James and Elizabeth Wells, the subject of this sketch, was born at the beautiful town of Holly Springs, Miss., in the midst of a fateful epoch. Great moral questions were uppermost in the public mind and discussion. In the forum of public prints, in the homes of the slave-holding oligarchy, in the cabins of the haunted and oppressed slave, the one question uppermost in the minds of all was that of abolition of slavery. The immortal Lincoln had issued the most momentous proclamation ever promulgated by the chief executive of a great nation. The alarums of internecine strife were dying away in subdued echoes, in which the sorrows of a great people were commingled with abounding joys. It was a period in which it was well to be born, if a man is a product in the development of his character of contemporaneous as well as prenatal influences.
The subject of this sketch was precocious in the acquisition of useful knowledge. When the Freedmen's School was established at Holly Springs she attended it until the building of what was then known as Shaw, but was subsequently Rust University. In consequence of the death of both parents of yellow fever, within a day of each other, in 1878, she was under the necessity of leaving school for the purpose of undertaking the support and education of the five children, younger than herself, who had been so suddenly committed to her care. A greater responsibility could not have fallen upon shoulders so young and upon one less experienced as a bread-winner, for she had had indulgent parents, whose chief delight was to give their children all the advantages of school which had been denied them through a cruel and barbarous institution. How hard the task was and how well performed need not be dwelt upon here, further than to say that the two sisters are given every advantage possible in the way of education.
For three years she taught in the Marshall and Tate county public schools of Mississippi, attending Rust between the terms. She then went to Arkansas and taught six months in Cleveland county; then returned to Memphis and taught two years in the Shelby county public schools, resigning to take a position in the Memphis city schools in the fall of 1884, which she held for seven years.
It was while teaching in Memphis that she began to write for the public press, appearing first in the Memphis Living Way, for which she wrote some time under the nom de plume of "Iola." She dealt mostly with some one or other of the phases of the race problem, and her views were widely quoted by other newspapers of the country. She became a regular contributor for the Kansas City Gate City Press, the Detroit Plaindealer, the American Baptist, the Christian Index, and other race papers. In June, 1889, she secured a one-third interest in the Memphis Free Speech and became its editor. Messrs. Nightengale and Fleming the former owners of the paper, continued the partnership until January 1, 1892, when Rev. Nightengale sold out to Mr. Fleming and Miss Wells.
Because of utterances of the Free Speech regarding the management of the public schools in 1891 the School Board decided that they could not employ so severe a critic; hence she was not re-elected to her position for the ensuing session of 1891-'92. She then gave her entire time to the paper, not at all deterred by the usual fate of race newspapers. She firmly believed that such a venture could be made to pay by first putting something in her paper worth reading, then taking steps to see that it was read by placing it in the homes of the people. She traveled extensively in the Mississippi Valley, from which she wrote graphic letters descriptive of the country and condition of the people. She went into their homes and not only learned of them but endeared herself to them as well. Her paper became a household visitor throughout the valley.
Few persons have brought more enthusiasm to their work than Miss Wells. She properly estimated the work of the race newspaper in educating the people to a proper conception of their rights and duties as citizens, and labored with an eye single to this object. The people seemed to feel the unselfish nobility and sustained it as they had never before sustained a newspaper. Of course it was natural that Miss Wells should take a strong stand against mob law. Many a sturdy blow she dealt upon the head of the gigantic monster. She felt that her life-work was in the South, where the vast majority of her people reside, and where she once expected they would always reside. At the highest point of her enthusiasm in the work, with prosperity crowning her labors on all hands, there came a rude awakening, a terrible shock, and the foundation of her confidence was destroyed forever. On March 9, 1892, there occurred in Memphis a tragedy which threw the whole city into a ferment of the wildest excitement and despair. Three reputable members of the race had been confined in the county jail for defending themselves and property from an attack by white ruffians masquerading in citizens clothes as officers of the law. Several of these ruffians had been wounded. A mob of white ruffians proceeded to the jail and securing the three Afro-Americans did them to death. Panic seized upon the people. Confidence in the legal machinery of county and State was undermined and many began to move away from the mob-infected city, encouraged thereto by the Free Speech and the ministers of the gospel.
After these brutal murders the white papers of Memphis, in the mad effort to placate the mob sentiment, teemed with the vilest utterances that ever disgraced the freedom of speech. They wrought the white masses to a state of absolute frenzy. It was in this state of the public temper that a paragraph in the Free Speech was taken by a daily paper and distorted into an excuse for calling on the white citizens to mob the proprietors of Free Speech. To this end a meeting was held. The business manager of the paper fled for his life, and Miss Wells, the editor, who was in Philadelphia at the time, was warned that she could not return to the city without danger to her life.
As in the old days at Alton, Ill., her splendid business was destroyed, the voice of a brave champion of right, justice and law was silenced in the home of oppression, and free speech, which John Milton has made the heritage of Anglo-Saxon-speaking races, was strangled to death. The concerted attempt of many Southern white men to put a padlock on the lips of freedom of speech will prevail no more in the case of Miss Wells than in the case of Elijah Lovejoy at Alton, and of William Lloyd Garrison in Baltimore. The Genius of Universal Emancipation is the voice of God, and cannot be stifled. The suppression of Miss Wells' newspaper at Memphis possibly marked a well-defined period in the contention upon which we have entered to wrest from wicked men the justice denied us as men and citizens, and she should consider it an honor that such a calamity came upon her in the prosecution of a cause so sacred. No history of the Afro-American of the future will be complete in which this woman's work has not a place. From the vantage ground of New York, and associated with the Age, the splendid work she began in the South Miss Wells hopes to continue until the victory is won. The extensive statement made by her in the New York Age of June 25, 1892, of the reasons which led to the suspension of her newspaper, and as an exhaustive statement of the true causes of lynch and mob law, was one of the clearest, most convincing and most pathetic expositions of fact made in recent times to the voluminous discussion of the race problem. It created a veritable sensation, and was referred to and discussed in hundreds of newspapers and thousands -of homes. It is a historic document, full of the pathos of awful truth.
Although not a graduate, because of reasons previously stated, Rust University conferred upon Miss Wells the degree of Master of Arts at the commencement exercises of 1892.
As a writer Miss Wells lacks in the beauties and graces affected by acamedicians. Her style is one of great strength and directness. She is so much in earnest that there is almost an entire absence of the witty and humorous in what she writes. She handles her subjects more as a man than as a woman; indeed, she has so long had the management of a large home and business interests that the sharpness of wit and self-possession which characterize men of affairs are hers in a large measure.
Few women have a higher conception of the responsibilities and the possibilities of her sex than Miss Wells. She has all of a woman's tenderness in all that affects our common humanity, but she has also the courage of the great women of the past who believed that they could still be womanly while being more than ciphers in "the world's broad field of battle."
There is scarcely any reason why this woman, young in years and old in experience, shall not be found in the forefront of the great intellectual fight in which the race is now engaged for absolute right and justice under the Constitution. No other woman of the race occupies to-day a better position to do good work, or is more generously endowed to perform it. Strong in her devotion to race, strong in the affections of her people, and strong in the estimation of influential men, co-workers with her in the cause, with all the future hers, if she fails to impress her personality upon the time in which she lives, whose fault will it be?
A chapter by T. Thomas Fortune,
Women of Distinction, 1893