by Uhuru B. Rowe
July 16, 1862. That’s the day Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born in Holly Springs, Miss. Her birth came just 62 days before President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation which ostensibly “freed” enslaved Blacks the following January in the Confederate slaveholding states of the South. Ida and her family were born into bondage.
Ida was a biracial sister. Her father James was an Indigenous Native and her mother Elizabeth was Black. When slavery was formally abolished with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Ida, her mother, father and seven siblings were “freed” from the yoke of chattel slavery.
Unbeknownst to them, there was a new form of social death awaiting Ida and her family that was designed to force Black people back into slavery. I believe that this is the period W.E.B. Du Bois was alluding to when he so eloquently summated: “The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again towards slavery.”
In 1878, following in the footsteps of her father, who helped found Shaw University, Ida became a teacher. Teaching in Tennessee in 1881 was where she had one of her first experiences with post-slavery anti-Black violence.
One day while commuting to work, she sat defiantly in the first-class section of a train reserved for white women. This was 74 years before Rosa Parks used the same tactic as a form of resistance against legal segregation. In Ida’s case, white racists weren’t able to remove her from her seat without a fight.
She met racist violence with her own special brand of violence. According to an account of the incident by David Levering Lewis in his book “W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919,” Ida was forcibly removed from the train by a “pack of bullying white men” with “the conductor’s flesh between her teeth.”
In reading about this encounter between Ida and the train conductor, the following words of Frederick Douglass come to mind: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or both.”
Ida had decided the moment those “bullying white men” put their hands on her that she was going to resist – not just with her words, but with her teeth.
It is this experience with post-slavery racist violence which ultimately shaped and defined the fierce, radical, militant and determined woman Ida blossomed into. It should come as no surprise that after the train incident, she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company for mistreatment. She was awarded $500 in damages.
The company appealed, however, and the state Supreme Court overturned the decision in 1887. Ida was ordered to return the $500. To add insult to injury, she was also ordered to pay an additional $200 in court fees. But Ida was undeterred. She kept right on pushin’.
She boldly and proudly spoke truth to power – power being patriarchal white supremacy – and her articles earned her the ire of those who wanted to preserve the status quo and those who felt like she had stepped too far out of her place, both as a woman and as a Black person.
Because of her grit, outspoken nature and literary skills, Ida was recruited to write op-ed articles for The Evening Star, a Black-owned newspaper. Her first op-ed, of course, was about her experience on the train and the legal battle that ensued.
The article brought her national popularity. She went on to write about anti-Black racism, racial segregation and the inequities that plagued Black schools.
Because she boldly and proudly spoke truth to power – power being patriarchal white supremacy – these articles earned her the ire of those who wanted to preserve the status quo and those who felt like she had stepped too far out of her place, both as a woman and as a Black person.
She was eventually fired from her job as a schoolteacher, which ended up being a blessing in disguise. Out of work, she now had more time to write articles critiquing the patriarchal white supremacist power structure.
In 1889, she landed a job as a writer and editor of another Black-owned newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Crisscrossing the country for speaking engagements, she earned enough money to buy out Rev. Taylor Nightingale, one of the owners of the newspaper, becoming co-owner along with J.L. Fleming, a Black businessman.
She managed to convince Fleming to start printing their newspaper on pink paper so that it would stand out among the rest. Can you imagine walking past a newsstand in the late 19th century and seeing a pink newspaper? This reflects just how brilliant a thinker and strategist Ida was.
Ida seemingly reached the pinnacle of her career when she was elected secretary of the Colored Free Press Association, where she was given the nickname “Princess of the Press.” She was indeed a princess. However, Ida’s career was on a collision course with Southern backlash to Reconstruction and the lynching it spawned.
It is this collision that would have a profound impact on her and would fundamentally influence her writing.
In her book, she correctly stated that the purpose of these state-sanctioned lynchings was “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.”
During the latter part of the 19th century, Black people like Ida were experiencing great economic success, which aggrieved their white counterparts. It is also that period in American history where de jure segregation and racist laws like the Black codes were constructed to keep Black people in their place and to prevent them from achieving too much success and too much freedom.
Where racist laws didn’t achieve those ends, violence was employed – especially lynching. A Black person was lynched, on average, every four days from 1889 to 1929, peaking in 1892 when approximately 255 Blacks were lynched, mostly Black men.
The most common justification for these lynchings was that a Black man had raped a white woman. Even President Theodore Roosevelt propagated this racist idea: “The greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by Black men, of the hideous crime of rape of white women,” said during his Annual Message to Congress on Dec. 3, 1906.
Somehow, Ida knew this justification was false. She researched all of the lynchings taking place and found that none of the Black men who were lynched had ever been charged with rape, and that those most often targeted had been successful businessmen.
She published her findings in her first book “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” In it, she correctly stated that the purpose of these state-sanctioned lynchings was “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.”
Following the release of “Southern Horrors,” Ida immediately began receiving death threats. Her newspaper office was burned to the ground – probably by the Ku Klux Klan, as was their custom – and she was forced to flee Memphis to escape being lynched herself.
She wound up in New York, where she continued her anti-lynching crusade via articles in The New York Age newspaper, of which she became part owner. Eventually she moved to Chicago, where she married a brother by the name of Ferdinand Barnett, a prominent attorney and founder of Chicago’s first Black-owned newspaper, the Chicago Conservator. Predictably, by 1901, Ida bought the Chicago Conservator. She was just 33 years old.
Ida went on to become a founding member of the National Afro-American Council, which was the precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also created the Alpha Suffrage Club, founded the National Association of Colored Women and helped found the Negro Fellowship League.
Ida’s articles exposing the state-backed genocidal lynching of Black people remind me of how much the incarcerated authors whose articles for current newspapers and newsletters have done to expose the inhumane and barbaric conditions that we on the inside are subjected to on a day-to-day basis.
Even by today’s standards, Ida would have been considered an extremely successful woman. She didn’t have to travel the world speaking out against Klan terror, lynching and the myriad other racial injustices which Black people were subjected to in America immediately following the supposed abolition of slavery.
She could have aligned herself with the burgeoning Black bourgeoisie – the so-called “Talented Tenth” – and turned a blind eye to the racial injustices which primarily affected poor Blacks. Her experience on the train that day shaped and molded the woman she was and the woman she became.
Ida’s articles exposing the state-backed genocidal lynching of Black people remind me of how much the incarcerated authors whose articles for newspapers and newsletters such as the San Francisco Bay View, Turning the Tide, Incarcerated Worker, California Prison Focus and Prison Action News have done to expose the inhumane and barbaric conditions that we on the inside are subjected to on a day-to-day basis.
Just like Ida, incarcerated writers are retaliated against for speaking truth to power and for exposing the often well-hidden truth that these prisons are not designed to rehabilitate us and return us back to our communities as whole human beings, but to torture, degrade and dehumanize us so that we’ll return to our communities broken men and women who are incapable contributing anything of value and substance to our families and the disadvantaged communities we come from.
In the same way that state-sanctioned lynchings were employed to terrorize Black people into subservience and preserve a patriarchal white supremacist social order, the mistreatment and dehumanization of incarcerated people is employed so that, once released, we’ll be more inclined to re-offend, which in turn perpetuates the mass incarceration of people of color in order to preserve that same social order.
Ida understood that lynching and other forms of Klan violence were tactics used to terrorize Black people back into slavery. We incarcerated writers today understand that the degradation and warehousing of prisoners with little to no rehabilitation are tactics used to maintain the prison industrial complex, which is modern-day slavery per the Exception Clause of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
There is no doubt that Ida’s writings made visible and brought an end to the legal lynching which took place in the cracks and crevices of American society. There is no doubt that the writings of incarcerated freedom fighters, which make visible the cruel and unusual treatment meted out to those of us trapped behind these walls, will help to bring an end to the prison industrial slave complex – or, as Michelle Alexander calls it, The New Jim Crow.
When I think about it, our dear sister Amani Sawari, who is the national spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and coordinator for the National Prison Strike and who has been crisscrossing the country doing speaking engagements and using her journalism skills to educate the people about the need to abolish prison slavery, is our modern-day Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
All Power to the People!