Black History Month Day 14, Creating your ownIda Barnett Wells was born during the era of slavery and lived during the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans. Wells would live to witness the birth of Jim Crow laws which prevented African-Americans from enjoying true liberation. The laws were a reminder of Abraham Lincoln words for African-Americans, they were "free but not equal". Neither words, free or equal applied to African-American women. Wells experienced this silence on her intersectional position of being both an African-American and a woman from enforcement of the United States Constitution. As an educated African-American woman, Wells discovered evem with the new provisions within the document did not and would not protect an African-American woman from being manhandled by raced white men. Who battled for the rights of African-American woman?
The fight would becomes Wells.
One day, Wells was asked to move to another section of the train. Wells, was told to move into a smoking section. But that day, Wells must have understood that this demand was not only an insult as a citizen but a threat against her as a woman. Wells refused to move and was thrown off the train. This light bulb moment would illuminate a different path for the teacher she was trained to be. Wells would now take on a life time crusade against not only discrimination against African-Americans but for legal protection for African-American women.
Wells would have to channel the messages from both former crusaders Sojourner Truth and Maria Stewart. It could not be left up to raced whites as Sojourner Truth pointed out, in defining womanhood when she asked "Ain't I A Woman ?" in order to be acknowledged by raced white males. Stewart stated that it was up to the African-American woman to define what it meant to be a woman. Wells' battle plan would have to fuse the two together and crafted a newspaper by a woman about African-Americans.
Wells' newspaper, the Free Speech would tell about the injustices committed against her as an African-American woman. This same newspaper would later chronicle the horrible lynchings that were occurring in the south. Wells newspaper documented the number of lynchings that were occurring under the passive Separate but Equal doctrine. One of her report tell about an incident of lynching involving her friends and another the torturing of a man accused of raping a raced white young female. The lynching was a public event with witnesses collecting souvenirs.
Wells reports showcased the South total disregard for human life. Wells learned through her travels to other countries, that there were sympathetic ears for her outrages against the south. Wells found those listening ears from the women in Britain. Britain had offered emancipated African-Americans freedom long before President Lincoln. The south was losing many African-Americans fleeing from the south to both Britain and Canada. Wells suggested that African-Americans leave Memphis and go elsewhere to live.
Women in other countries were surprised to learn that Wells did not find support for her causes in fighting against injustices from women in the United States. Wells reported that America's women movement did not include African-American women. Highlighting the hypocrisy within the pious so called women movement -fight for equality for all women, Wells pointed out the non existence of African-American women membership. In fact, the United States women movement was a battle about class among raced white women. A class warfare as to which raced white women could enter the sphere of true womanhood and be classed a "lady". These women would be allowed to enter society or sororities to mate and marry America's patriotic and prominent males.
Wells writings about these contradictions in America angered her opponents and her newspaper was destroyed. Wells had to do what she was advocating for others to do. Wells had to flee to the north for her own safety. Wells continued her crusade against racial injustices by helping organize the NAACP. Her voice would replace her newspaper as she ran for political office. This would provide Wells an opportunity to rally others to the bully pulpit to fight for the legal rights of all African-Americans, including women.
Wells life journey reminds us of the outrage years later when mild mannered Rosa Parks, a woman, refused to give her seat to a raced white male and remained in her seat.