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Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was extremely influential in her lifetime as a journalist and civil rights activist.
The journalist and activist Ida B. Wells was so prominent in the late 1800s and early 1900s that The New York Times recently wrote that historians consider her the most famous black woman in the United States during her lifetime.
She became progressively less of a household name in the decades
after her death in 1931, but Wells has recently been back in the public
eye as the subject of news articles and editorials, podcasts, exhibits
and memorials. In Chicago, a street has been named for her.
To refresh our memories of what we may or may not have learned
about Wells (who was also known as Wells-Barnett) in history classes,
Margaret Stetz shared some reflections on Wells life and legacy.
Stetz, who is Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Womens Studies and
professor of humanities at the University of Delaware, has taught many
classes over the years that include Wells contributions to the civil
rights and feminist movements. Stetz is also the author of an article, published in the spring 2018 issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, examining how Wells has been represented in popular literature, including childrens literature.
Q: Why do you think that Wells seems to be attracting so much attention recently?
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Margaret Stetz is Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Womens Studies and professor of humanities at UD.
Stetz: This is certainly an Ida B. Wells moment. A number of things have contributed to this, including The New York Times
series of Overlooked obituaries, in which they publish obituaries of
important women many of them women of color who werent memorialized
in the paper at the time of their deaths. Theyve published one on Wells, and theyve also written an editorial praising Chicago for naming a downtown street for her. Then theres the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice
in Montgomery, Alabama, which has a section commemorating Wells and her
tireless work as a crusader against lynching. And as recently as the
end of August, the Washington Post put a podcast about Wells online as part of its Retropod series on historical figures.
Q: I understand after years of raising money and gathering
support, her descendants are now ready to install a memorial in Chicago
next year. Why is all this happening now?
Stetz: Ida B. Wells is a figure who represents resistance, and
thats a powerful message right now. She was such a fighter in so many
different realms, for racial justice especially as one of the founders
of the NAACP and for womens suffrage, and was really an
extraordinary writer, speaker and organizer. So this is the right
political moment for people to pay attention to what she did.
Q: What should we remember most about her?
Stetz: She was extremely influential in her lifetime, and she
lectured not just in the United States, but also in Britain in the
1890s. She was very savvy about leveraging economic pressure and moral
pressure as she crusaded against lynching in the South. In her lectures
and her writing, she refuted the idea that African American men were
lynched because they had raped or assaulted white women, and she had the
facts to back that up. At one time, because she was so popular as a
public speaker, she was approached by an agent who guaranteed her a good
income if shed go on a lecture circuit but agree not to talk about
lynching. Even though she needed the money, she refused. She also fought
with white women who tried to keep her and other African American women
from participating in the movement to gain the right to vote. But
nobody ever could stop her.
Q: What do we know about her personal life?
Stetz: Ida B. Wells made choices in her personal life that
were way ahead of the times. After she married and had a child, she
continued to work and to do her anti-lynching lecture tours, with her
baby in tow and with her husbands support. She quite literally took her
baby on the road with her, which was practically unheard-of in the
early 1900s. And because of the subjects she was talking about, she was
accused of every kind of low-life behavior you can imagine, being called
a harlot and worse. If you see photos of her, youll notice that she
dressed in extremely fashionable, respectable, businesslike clothing as a
way of showing how absurd those accusations were.
Q: She suffered other hardships because of her work and her activism, didnt she?
Stetz: Absolutely. When she did her first investigative
reporting about lynching and published those articles and editorials in
the newspaper she co-owned and edited [The Free Speech and Headlight],
the papers offices were ransacked and the presses were destroyed by
white mobs that vowed to kill her if she returned to Memphis. Thats
when Wells moved, first to New York and then to Chicago, but she didnt
stop her activism. And she was threatened throughout her life because of
Q: How do you include her in your own work?
Stetz: I started teaching about Wells in the 1990s in feminist
courses at Georgetown University. Recently, Ive been teaching works by
and about her regularly in my Women and Gender Studies course at UD,
"The New Woman in Black and White." For the journal Americana, I
wrote about a variety of films, adult comics and plays, as well as
childrens books, about her. I think the stories for children will
guarantee her future fame. New generations should grow up knowing why
they need to honor her.
Article by Ann Manser; photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library