The Groundbreaking Journalism of Ida B. Wells

Many of us have heard the name Ida B. Wells, but fewer than of us than we’d like to admit can name her accomplishments. Ida B. Wells fits in an interesting place in the collective remembrance of Black American history: not quite universally heralded but not quite lost to the obscurity that so many important Black Americans often are. In 2020, this journalist and hero was posthumously awarded The Pulitzer Prize, reinstating her legacy and profound civil rights impact.

Ida B. Wells was born in Mississippi in 1862 and into the institution of slavery. Her parents instilled the importance of an education into Wells, stressing that boundaries such as sex or skin color should not be boundaries against the pursuit of knowledge. Tragically, a yellow fever epidemic took both of her parents and her youngest sibling when Wells was 16 years old. Left to take care of the younger siblings, she moved them to Memphis, Tennessee and worked as a teacher.

While in Memphis, she became co-editor and co-owner of the newspaper The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a Black-owned newspaper that was committed to reporting injustices during the era of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. It was where Wells publicized her major court case: she was suing a railroad company for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Wells argued the company had done so by ordering her to move from a women’s train car to a smoking train car on account of her race. It was also where she published an exposé on the poor conditions of schools for Black children, which eventually led to her dismissal as a teacher.

The pivotal moment in Wells’ career came simultaneously with one of tragedy. In 1892, three of her friends were victims of lynching. Wells lamented in The Memphis Free Speech that the world her people had supposedly been freed into did not respect their lives, property, or right to a fair trial. Armed by this tragedy, Wells’ journalistic career took on a new life. She decided to cover a case no one had yet dared to: the mass lynching of Black people across the southern United States.

During this time, very few people, let alone journalists, were openly questioning why members of the Black community were being lynched at such a high rate. The consensus among major publications and in the white community was that lynching, although extra-judicial killing, was in most cases justified. However, the Black community knew this to be untrue and sought justice and answers.

Thus, Wells became a full-fledged and pioneering investigative journalist. She traveled across the South collecting eyewitnesses, investigating public records, and analyzing court documents. In these thorough investigations, Wells published the real motive behind these lynchings. At the time, a majority of lynchings were justified under the guise that Black men were assaulting white women. Wells, in her articles for The Memphis Free Speech, uncovered that this was only a guise and that lynchings were really a result of racial hatred. The men who were lynched were not criminals but victims of violent Jim Crow racism.

Exposing the truth did not go smoothly for Wells, as a white mob stormed The Memphis Free Speech building and burned it to the ground, causing Wells to leave Tennessee for Chicago. Unnerved, in 1892, Wells went on to publish her most extensive report on southern lynchings yet and her zenith of investigative reporting, The Red Record. Equipped with 14 pages of statistics, detailed accounts of lynchings, photographs, and eyewitness testimonies, the book was distributed all over The United States. Along with several, shorter pamphlets and subsequent books, the rest of the country and the world became aware how deeply disturbing and widespread the lynching of Black men had become.

Her factual and thorough reporting, which emerged during a time of sensationalized yellow journalism, would go on to further inspire future investigative journalists. The New York Times would note in her obituary that many hallmarks of modern investigative journalism can find their origins in Wells’ techniques. Wells illustrated how factual reporting can result in societal change.

In writing this, I admit that I have only scratched the surface of Ida B. Well’s life. She led a hundred different lives, such as ones as an educator, activist, journalist, politician, and leader. As such, her legacy, not only in journalism but in so many aspects of our society, is difficult to measure due to its sheer magnitude. This Black History month, may we remember the life of Ida B. Wells.

 

References:

“Ida B. Wells was posthumously awarded The Pulitzer Prize”. https://share.america.gov/ida-b-wells-receives-posthumous-pulitzer-prize/

 

“Ida B. Wells and the Activism of Investigative Journalism” https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2020/02/ida-b-wells-and-the-activism-of-investigative-journalism/

 

“How Ida B. Wells became a trailblazing journalist” https://www.vox.com/2015/7/16/8978257/ida-b-wells

 

“The Life of Ida B. Wells-Barnett” https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ida-b-wells-barnett