Black Church Figures You Should Know: Ida B. Wells

Why the series?

Historical Theology and Church History in the African American context is rarely celebrated. That is a very sad occasion. There is much we can learn from the rich tradition of the African American church. When we do, it affirms the great doctrine that all men are created in the Image of God and it kills the great sin of intellectual racism.

What about the series?

A few things must be noted about our list. First and foremost, please be aware that appearances on the list do not automatically confirm theological content and biblical orthodoxy. Please consider each figure in light on proper biblical interpretation and refer to our statement of beliefs when in doubt. Secondly, this list is nowhere near being exhaustive in scope or content. We are barely scratching the surface and this is merely the tip of the iceberg. We considered appearances on the list by surveying several avid supporters for their considerations based upon the figures of significant impact, rich content, and historical significance.

 

Ida Bell Wells (1862-1931) – Anti-Lynching Crusader

A fearless anti-lynching crusader, women’s rights advocate, journalist, and speaker, Ida B. Wells remains to be one of the most uncompromising and passionate defenders of democracy in our nation’s history. 

Wells was born six months prior to the Emancipation Proclamation in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862.  She was born as the oldest of eight children to James and Lizzie Wells.  Well’s parents were active in the Republican Party during the Reconstruction era.  Her father was involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society, an organization founded in 1861 chiefly by the Congregational, Presbyterian and Methodist churches geared towards ensuring freed men education.  Consequently, he helped start Shaw University, now Rust College, and served on the first board of trustees.  Ida Wells received her schooling at Rust College until the age of 16 when she had to drop out due a yellow fever epidemic that overtook both her parents and one of her siblings.   Taking responsibility for caring for her other siblings, she became a teacher.  Eventually she moved to Memphis to live with her aunt and to help raise her siblings. 

It was in Memphis where Wells began to fight for racial and gender justice.  In 1884 she was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to move from her first-class ladies car seat to the “Jim Crow” section of the train.  She refused and was forcibly removed from the train.  Under the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Wells was able to file and win a lawsuit against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad.  Although she was awarded a settlement, the verdict was appealed and reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court.   She then began writing political columns in church newspapers.  Saving her money from her teaching job, she became co-partner of the Free Speech and Headlight newspaper in 1889 along with Rev. R. Nightingale, the pastor of Beale Street Baptist Church.   It was in this paper that Wells became a full advocate against violence against blacks, disenfranchisement, education, and civil rights. 

In 1891, Wells was fired from her job as a teacher, so she dedicated her life to being an advocate for social justice.  Her determination intensified after the lynching of three of her friends.  The story is told that three black men-Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart- operated a prosperous grocery store in Memphis.  Feeling the decline of customers from the black community, the owner of a white store gathered supporters and set to vandalize the three men’s store.  In an attempt to defend themselves, they ended up shooting several of the white vandals.  After being arrested and brought to jail, a lynch mob took them from their cells and murdered them.

After the incident, Ida B. Wells began to write editorials exposing the incident and several other lynching incidents throughout the South.  While the threat of losing her life looming, Wells continued to expose the evils of racial injustice in both America and in Europe.  She also helped to establish several civil rights organizations.  In 1896, she helped form the National Association of Colored Women.  In 1909, she helped to organize the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.   It is said that she later dismissed herself from the NAACP because she believed the organization lacked action-based initiatives at that time. 

On March 25, 1931, Ida B. Wells succumbed to kidney disease at the age of 69. Without a doubt, she left behind a legacy that still echoes throughout the halls of justice today. 

For more information visit:

Duke University – Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Passion for Justice

Biography.com – Ida B. Wells

PBS.org – Jim Crow Stories:  Ida B. Wells