Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

Ida B. Wells: America’s Forgotten Investigative Journalist

Updated Published
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

Can you imagine being deemed an American hero as an African American civil rights activist, suffragette, journalist, and schoolteacher who became the owner of two newspapers, but no known copies of your paper exist today? Thankfully for you and your imagination, that is the tale of one of America’s first investigative journalists, Ida B. Wells.

In Chicago, Illinois, a road once known as Congress Parkway was transformed into Ida B. Wells Drive — marking the first street in downtown Chicago named after a woman of color. Nearly 156 years before the Chicago City Council renamed the parkway, in 1862, Wells was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Three years later, with the end of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, the Reconstruction era began. Wells’s parents were incredibly self-sufficient and learned to read and write after slavery ended. They educated each of their eight children, instilling the importance of education for people of color. Her mother even attended classes with her children to further improve her own skills. In an attempt to receive an early education, Wells attended Shaw University (later renamed Rust College) for a few months before she was involved in a dispute with the university president and forced to drop out. Shortly after, when Ida was 16 years old, both her parents and infant brother tragically passed away from yellow fever. As her six siblings were now orphans and she was the eldest, Wells “suddenly found [herself] head of a family.” She supported them by working as a schoolteacher while simultaneously teaching Sunday school, continuing her studies, and maintaining the household’s cooking and cleaning. Wells carried on her teaching three years later, in 1881, when she and her two youngest sisters moved to Memphis, Tennessee.

With the end of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws were continuously enforced, mainly through means of violence. When Wells was 22, she bought a first-class train ticket from Memphis to Holly Springs. Naturally, she sat in the ladies’ first-class car, but the conductor instructed her to relocate to the African American section. After Wells refused to move and the conductor attempted to drag her from her seat, Wells bit his hand. Eventually, two men helped the conductor remove her from the train while her White peers sat in their seats and applauded. Later, Wells enjoyed a brief victory after she sued the railroad for unfair treatment and won locally, but upon federal appeal, the railroad prevailed. To Wells’ dismay, Jim Crow had overtaken the South. 

Two years later, Wells lost her teaching job because of her critique of the Memphis public school system, but quickly got back on her feet by turning to journalism full time. Following the incident on the train, she began to write about racial and political topics in the South under the pseudonym “Lola.” She wrote for the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, and three years later, she bought a share of the company and was appointed its editor. Wells was the first female co-owner and editor of an African American newspaper in the United States.

In 1892, a crucial turning point came when she began her renowned anti-lynching crusade to honor her friend Thomas Moss, co-owner of the “People’s Grocer Company” in Memphis. Moss and two of his comrades, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart, opened a grocery store that competed with a White-owned market nearby. After multiple adverse interactions, one night, the men were forced to guard their store and ended up shooting several White men. 

Of course, they were arrested and taken to jail, but unfortunately, a lynch mob took them from their cells into a field and brutally murdered and abandoned their bodies. After the event had transpired, Wells purchased a pistol and wrote an editorial warning Blacks to flee Memphis for their safety. She began traveling around the South to investigate other cases of lynchings and soon focused on lynching across America.

By this time, lynching was categorized as a terrorist campaign to ensure that White people had control of the South. Those lynched were typically Black men accused of raping White women, but Wells believed these accusations false because they were made after the men were beaten, burned, hanged, or shot. She assumed that these Black men were involved in consensual relationships with White women or had no connection to the women and were threatening their White counterparts, like her friend Thomas Moss. She wrote a considerable amount of editorials, but the last one regarding White women and Black men and their possible romantic involvement had a powerful effect on Memphis’ White population. White newspaper editors printed Wells’ article and encouraged White men to retaliate and avenge their women.

Opportunely, Wells headed north for three weeks and was safe in New York when she learned of the threats made against her family, friends, and herself. These angry mobs stormed the offices of her newspaper and burned everything — including every known copy of the paper itself — to the ground. Wells knew that she could no longer call Memphis her home. She changed her pen name to “Exiled” and lived in the North, primarily in Chicago, for the remainder of her life.

From 1884 to 1892, Wells documented 728 lynching cases through an accumulation of articles entitled “Southern Horrors.” In her writing, she leaned away from the gruesomeness of the crimes and instead on the falsity of the accusations made against the men. Wells aimed “to arouse the conscience of America,” and since then, was known as the crusader against lynching. In 1898, she presented her anti-lynching campaign to President William McKinley at the White House and called for reformation. 

Even in the realm of marriage, Wells was a pioneer. When she married Ferdinand Barnett, a fellow crusader, she was among the first American women to keep her maiden name. In their household, they shared the chore load amongst themselves. Such a dynamic was unheard of in the late 1800s, but the couple thrived and had four children together.

Later, Wells formed many organizations like the National Association of Colored Women and was involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Although she is considered a founder of the NAACP, she cut ties as she felt it lacked the necessary action-based initiatives. 

She was also a crusader for women’s suffrage, specifically Black women, as she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club. Because of this club, and to the dismay of several people involved, she was invited to march in the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. The organizers asked the women of color to march at the back of the parade, but Wells refused. While the rest of the Suffrage Club marched behind the White women, Wells stood on the sidelines until they passed, and then she began her march.

She continued her work for the remainder of her life until March 25, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois; Ida B. Wells died of kidney disease and left the world with her legacy of activism. In 2020, Wells was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her accolades and reports about lynching. According to a daybook she kept, about a year before her passing, she attended a Negro History meeting on an average day in Chicago. She left feeling disappointed despite her work as an activist and felt her contributions had gone unacknowledged. Now, nearly 90 years later, she was finally given her flowers. A fierce warrior who paved the way for Black women around the globe, she laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement and brought light to those like herself — those unsung American heroes. 

Maddie Spicer

CU Boulder '27

Maddie Spicer is a staff writer at the Her Campus Chapter at the University of Colorado at Boulder. As she joined in August 2023, her duties include researching and writing articles and features to be published. At the University of Colorado Boulder, she is a freshman majoring in Journalism with plans to minor in Graphic Design. She initiated her writing career in high school as a team writer for her school newspaper, The Yahoo!. In the two years she wrote for the paper, Maddie advanced from an entry-level writer to the Assistant Editor and public relations manager. In 2022, she was an attendant at the Washington Journalism and Media Conference (WJMC) hosted at George Mason University. During this week-long program, she met students, faculty, and speakers from all over the United States, and Maddie recognized her fondness for journalism. Outside of school, Maddie is a relentless shopper and a self-titled fashion critic. She has established harmony between her passion for fashion and journalism through her articles: "Style, Spice, and Everything Nice." Maddie believes Taylor Swift and Megan Thee Stallion are her best friends and always has them on repeat. As an avid concert-goer, she devotes most of her finances to purchasing tickets of some variety. When Maddie is nowhere to be found, she is hanging out with her friends, eating chocolate chips, watching BoJack Horseman, or a strange yet typical combination of all three.