Badass Women in History: Ida B. Wells

Hey, all! Today in Badass Women in History, I’m bringing you the story of Ida B. Wells –an activist and journalist who fought for the rights of African Americans, and especially those of African American women.

Ida B. Wells as a young woman      Photo: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library


Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in 1862. She was educated at the local school, and at fourteen years old became a teacher herself. She taught at the local country school, and continued to teach after moving to Memphis in 1884. She attended Fisk University in Nashville, and while there, began writing for a newspaper under the name Iola Wells. She wrote several articles that were critical of the education available to African American students, which were not well received. Her teaching contract was not renewed, so she delved completely into journalism, where she knew she could make an impact.


In 1892, three of her friends were lynched for killing white men in self-defense. This prompted her to begin an anti-lynching campaign, which led to her newspaper’s office being sacked. She began writing for the New York Age, and became a lecturer and organizer for several anti-lynching societies.


She moved to Chicago in 1895 where she married lawyer, editor, and public official Ferdinand L. Barnett. Wells-Barnett (how cool that she hyphenated, right? Not very common back then) contributed regularly to her husband’s paper, The Chicago Conservator. She became very involved in public life in Chicago, organizing local African American women in causes from anti-lynching to suffrage.  She was militant in her support of these causes, and insisted that the only way for African Americans to advance was through their own efforts. She even helped found what would become the NAACP, but became disenchanted with the society when most of its leadership was made up of whites and elite black men. She even became a probation officer for the Chicago Municipal Courts in 1913. She died in 1931 at the age of 69.

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                  Ida B. Wells-Barnett                  Photo: Getty Images/ Chicago History Museum

Ida B. Wells is one of the more famous names of my list of Badass Women, but a lot of her accomplishments went under the radar. I think the coolest thing about her was that she was an advocate for others. While some of the issues she brought attention to may not have directly impacted her, she recognized both the need to make the country aware of them and the need fight to put an end to the injustice.


Thanks for reading, and until next time!