July 16, 2014

Birth of Ida B. Wells: with its joys and sorrows

Ida B. Wells was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862. Before she was even a year old, however, she was emancipated by Abraham Lincoln. Her parents, who were also freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, encouraged education in their children (her father was a trustee of what is now Rust College). However, her parents died when she was a teenager, and young Ida dropped out of college to became a schoolteacher in order to earn enough money to support her siblings.

Wells eventually moved the family to Tennessee, and there experienced segregation and the effects of racism stronger than before. In September 1883, she refused to move from the first class cabin of the train to the smokers' cabin. Though she won a lawsuit against the company, she lost on a later appeal. She sued again after a similar incident and again won initially but, this time, it was the state's supreme court that overturned the verdict.

The incidents fueled her desire to do something to attack the problem of racism and she soon switched careers from educator to journalist. She wrote for newspapers in Tennessee, New York, Michigan, Illinois, and others, writing directly about racial problems including poor funding for black schools and the horror of lynchings. She was soon labeled a troublemaker; others, however, called her "Princess of the Press." Eventually, she was owner and editor of her own newspaper, Free Speech. Once, in 1892, while away from the office, her building was ransacked by her enemies. She was undeterred, and Ida B. Wells had a lengthy career as a journalist, author, and public speaker.

An entry from her diary on her 25th birthday, July 16, 1887, shows the high standards she set for herself even at that young age:

This morning I stand face to face with twenty five years of life, that ere the day is gone will have passed me by forever. The experiences of a quarter of a century of life are my own, beginning with this, for me, new year... Within the last ten [years] I have suffered more, learned more, lost more than I ever expect to, again. In the last decade, I've only begun to live — to know life as a whole with its joys and sorrows. Today I write these lines with a heart overflowing with thankfulness to My Heavenly Father for His wonderful love & kindness... When I turn to sum up my own accomplishments I am not so well pleased. I have not used the opportunities I had to my best advantage and find myself intellectually lacking... Twenty-five years old today! May another 10 years find me increased in honesty & purity of purpose & motive!

*Information, including the passage above, comes from The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1994 edition), edited by Miriam Decosta-Willis.

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