This book is narrated by the author, who is the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells – the renown investigative journalist, suffragist, and civil rights activist inter alia born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862.
Wells became one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and in her lifetime was arguably the most famous Black woman in the United States.
Duster explains that when Ida was 16, she lost both of her parents and a younger brother to yellow fever. It was Ida who had to take care of her five remaining siblings. When they were grown, she began a career as a teacher, first in Mississippi and later in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1884, when Ida was in her early twenties and on a train, she was asked to relocate from the “ladies’ car” to the “colored car.” She refused and was ejected from the train. She sued the Chesapeake, Ohio & Southwestern Railroad, won her case and all the appeals, and was awarded $500. (Unfortunately, in 1896 the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld state-imposed racial segregation, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine.)
While still teaching, Ida became co-owner of the “Memphis Free Speech” newspaper and built up a following as a writer.
In 1892, her life completely changed, her great granddaughter reports, when three of her friends who owned a grocery store were lynched by whites. Duster writes:
“Ida . . . knew that her friends . . . were only guilty of being economic rivals to a white-owned business. . . . She realized lynching was used to keep the Black community in an economically and socially inferior position.”
Ida employed her newspaper to write about the incident and to urge Memphis Blacks to boycott streetcars and white-owned businesses. But while she was out of town, her printing press was destroyed and her life threatened: “She lost everything she owned and never returned to Memphis.”
Ida moved to New York City, where she worked on the “New York Age” newspaper and wrote pamphlets about lynching, using investigative techniques to expose the extent of the problem. For example, she discovered that in 1892 a lynching in Tunica, Mississippi occurred after the father of a young white woman implored a lynch mob to kill a Black man with whom his daughter was having a sexual relationship, under the pretense of saving the reputation of his daughter.
[You can read Wells’ pamphlets online, such as the 1892 “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” here.] She also began speaking publicly both in the US and abroad about what she learned.
In 1895 she married newspaper owner Ferdinand L. Barnett and, as Duster observes, “did what few married women did at that time: she hyphenated her last name, becoming Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” They had four children, the youngest of whom, Alfreda, is the author’s grandmother.
In addition to her other accomplishments, Ida started the first kindergarten for Black children in Chicago; was involved in the fight for women to get the vote; and she founded and managed the Negro Fellowship League:
“Wherever she saw injustice or inequality, Ida raised her voice and did what she could to effect change.”
Ida B. Wells Barnett died at age 68 on March 25, 1931.
Back matter includes a timeline and list of tributes to Ida B. Wells.
Laura Freeman selected bold colors to display the well-researched historical events the book describes. As always, her collages include many clever but subtle touches to add meaning to the narrative.
Evaluation: There are many reasons for kids to learn about Ida B. Wells-Barnett and her accomplishments. Her dedication to finding out facts and countering rumors and misinformation, such as the common canard that lynchings all were caused by rapes by Black men of white women, and the publication of those facts in pamphlets with wide distribution, was so important to setting the historical record straight.
Specifically, as an online analysis of her work points out:
”The pamphlet refuted the justification for lynching as punishment for black on white rape by revealing that, according to published sources, fewer than 30% of reported lynchings even involved the charge of rape much less a legally proven case of it. This finding became the cornerstone of all subsequent arguments against lynching by a wide range of reformers and critics.”
Rather, this analysis continues, “the rape charge obscured the economic and political competition that fueled white racial hostility toward African Americans in the post-Reconstruction era. Second, it hid the consensual and sometimes illicit sexual contacts between white women and black men that took place in the past and the present. Third, by describing rape as an inherent inclination of black men, white men’s institutionalized sexual power over black women (which included long-standing patterns of abuse and victimization that arose under slavery and continued in its aftermath) was eclipsed by sensationalism and an appeal to ‘nature.’”
As Ida wrote, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Ida did not let her gender or race deter her from pursuing justice, nor even physical attacks. Her inspiring story is an important part of American history.
Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2022