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The Truth Will Unite Us: The Early Life of Ida B. Wells

Updated on February 4, 2019
A young Ida B. Wells.
A young Ida B. Wells. | Source

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an influential writer and tireless advocate for African American civil rights after the Civil War. Although institutional slavery had been abolished, African Americans were still not afforded the same rights as white people, especially in the south. Wells’ radical editorials gave a voice to African Americans, but they also rekindled a spark in former Abolitionists, who lacked direction after the Civil War. Wells was a pioneer of the anti-lynching movement in the United States, and co-founder of the Anti-Lynching Society in the United Kingdom. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and the National Afro-American Council, and was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Wells’ fiery spirit and rhetoric, whose contributions to American society and politics continues to this day, has long gone unrecognized, until recently. In 2018, the Ida B. Wells Monument Fund raised $300,000 to erect a monument honoring Wells in the Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville, “where she once lived, worked and raised her family.” 1

Unfortunately, historians and activists alike gaze back on Wells’ contributions with rose-colored glasses. She was, by most contemporary accounts, a stubborn and unreasonable woman, who excelled at not only enraging her enemies in both the white and black communities, but she also possessed a peculiar talent of alienating even her most loyal supporters with her mercurial - and not entirely factual - editorials and journalism that were oftentimes more yellow than investigative.

It was, most likely, the desire - and continues to be a desire - of those who consider themselves socially and politically progressive to put themselves “on the right side of history.” In regard to slavery and lynchings, that isn’t a hard thing to do; both slavery and lynchings (vigilante justice) are morally repugnant and neither can exist in a truly civilized and enlightened society.

However, it is impossible to arrive at the right side of history if you are being led down a path of deception.

Almost 90 years after Wells’ death, racial tensions remain high. It is time to hold Wells accountable for her part in creating this tension.

Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells | Source

Please note: There are quotations from Wells and her contemporaries (ca. 1890s), in addition to quotes from contemporary (ca. 1890s) newspapers in which they use the words “negro” and “colored.” I use these words only in direct quotes, not in my own analysis or narrative.

Although technically born into slavery, Wells was a mere six months old when the Emancipation Proclamation freed her and all other slaves living within the borders of the Confederacy.

Her mother, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Warrenton, and her father, James Wells, were both slaves to Spires Boling, an accomplished architect in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Both were educated and skilled laborers; Jim was a master carpenter and Lizzie a “famous” cook. Wells’ father, throughout his life, enjoyed privileges few other slaves would ever see, even after emancipation:

“My father was the son of his master and his slave women Peggy who owned a plantation in Tippah County, Miss. [Probably James].2 Wells had no children by his wife “Miss Polly”, and my father grew up on the plantation the companion and comfort of his old age. He was never whipped not on the auction block and knew little of the cruelties of slavery. When young Jim was 18 years old, his father took him to Holly Springs and apprenticed him to learn the carpenter’s trade which he expected him to use on the plantation.” 3

Ida’s mother, on the other hand, experienced the horrors of slavery firsthand. When she was still a child, Wells’ mother was sold to slave traders in Virginia, who then sold her to Spires Boling, in Mississippi; she worked as his cook until shortly after emancipation. It was on the Boling plantation that she and James Wells met. Boling was reported as a “good” owner and treated his slaves well, but that did not erase Lizzie’s past:

“She was born in Virginia and was one of ten children. She and two sisters were sold to slave traders when young and taken to Mississippi and sold again. She often told her children that her father was a half Indian his father being a full blood.” 4

Unfortunately, Lizzie Wells was never able to confirm her lineage, despite many efforts to contact her people in Virginia.

Wells’ knowledge of slavery, therefore, was limited to the stories her parents and grandmother told her. Growing up, Wells did not experience the horrific, systemic abuse or oppression slaves had endured at the hands of their masters; her family did not suffer under crushing poverty, as was common for African Americans after the war. Wells gives the impression that she had a better than normal upbringing. Her father was a well respected business owner in his community. All the children were educated at Bible school and a local school, Shaw University, which had been set up by The Freedmen’s Aid Society; her father was one of its trustees.

It is believed that Ida Wells was born in the Boling house, which was built by her father. This home was later donated to the City of Holly Springs:

“In the 1870s, the Boling family lost this house in foreclosure, but the new owner, Judge Gordentia Waite (1811-1891) allowed the family to continue living here until Boling’s death in 1880. Gordentia Waite McClain (1867-1940) owned the house from 1891 until 1901, when he sold the house to Lafayette Gatewood (d. 1914) and his wife Mary Walker Gatewood (d. 1916). The Gatewood family lived here for almost 100 years … In 1997, the Gatewood sisters deeded the house to Brian K. Frazier, who deeded the house to the City of Holly Springs in 2000. Soon after, the Boling-Gatewood House became the home of the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum. Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was likely born on the property of this house in 1862, as a slave of Spires Boling.” 5

The Boling-Gatewood House of Holly Springs, Mississippi.  Ida B. Wells' father built this house, and she was born in it.  It is now a museum dedicated to her legacy.
The Boling-Gatewood House of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Ida B. Wells' father built this house, and she was born in it. It is now a museum dedicated to her legacy. | Source

After Emancipation, Wells’ father had become increasingly political. He even made the bold move of abruptly leaving the Boling plantation, which had been his home for many years; not because of cruel treatment at the hands of his former master, but because Boling urged him to vote for the Democrats. At the time, Democrats were the party of the Ku Klux Klan. Jim Wells could not let that request go unnoticed, and left the plantation immediately. He bought a new set of tools, and rented another home for his family. 6 There is no evidence that Boling was angry over this incident, or tried to exact revenge on Jim Wells for leaving.

Wells’ paternal grandmother, Peggy Wells, stayed in Holly Springs with her son’s family at the end of every summer:

“She and her husband owned and tilled many acres of land and every fall brought their cotton and corn to market. She also brought us many souvenirs from hog killing time.” 7

Although Wells’ mother spoke about her own “slave days” and “her people,” Wells implies that her father never broached the topic:

“The only thing I remember about my father’s reference to slave days was when his mother came to town on one of her annual visits … On one such occasion she told about “Miss Polly” her former mistress and said: “Jim, Miss Polly wants you to leave and bring the children she wants to see them.”

““Mother,” said he, “I never want to see that old woman as long as I live. I’ll never forget how she had you stripped and whipped the day after the old man died, and I am never going to see her. I guess it’s all right for you to take care of her and forgive her, but she could have starved to death if I’d had my say so. She certainly would have, if it hadn’t been for you.” 8

Education was important to Wells’ mother, and she taught Wells to read when she was very young; so young, in fact, that Wells did not remember a time when she couldn’t read and write. Her mother took the children to Bible school every week, and took Wells to nearby Shaw University (now Rust University), a local African American school, where she furthered her education.

Unfortunately, Wells’ time there was not entirely pleasant:

“While a student at Rust, Ida encountered the joys and sorrows of puberty. She experienced her "first love" and its painful demise. James B. Combs was a Rust student from Georgia, who boarded with a local family. Described in the 1880 U.S. census as "mulatto," Combs was about five years older than Wells and apparently was the one to end the relationship. He married someone else and remained in Holly Springs for at least ten years--his presence reminding Wells of the impermanence of love. Throughout her twenties Ida remained skittish of committing herself to just one man.

“Other relationships caused difficulties for Wells at Rust. In late 1885, she referred to her tenure at Rust as "my darkest days." Ida's fiery temper often got her in trouble, and a confrontation with President Hooper apparently led to her dismissal sometime in 1880 or 1881. For years she resented him tremendously for her expulsion, but in June 1886 she admitted to herself that her own "tempestuous, rebellious, hard headed wilfulness" was to blame. She rued her "disposition to question his authority" and asserted, "I no longer cherish feelings of resentment, nor blame him that my scholastic career was cut short.”" 9

Page one of the original manuscript of Crusade for Justice: Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.
Page one of the original manuscript of Crusade for Justice: Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. | Source

In 1878, when Wells was 16,10 both of her parents died in an outbreak of yellow fever. During the initial stages of the outbreak, Wells’ father continued to work as a carpenter, building coffins for those dying from the fever. He was also known to sit and say a short prayer with sick people he met on the street. Her mother and infant brother fell ill first; Jim Wells cared for them diligently, but, in the end, an Irish woman had to be called in to nurse both of them. Wells was staying with her grandmother in the country when her family fell ill, and didn’t know they had contracted the fever.

Unfortunately, Jim Wells then fell ill and died on September 26, 1878; Lizzie died the next day, 27 September, and Stanley died several days later, on 3 October 1878. 11 Lizzie was not even 40 years old when she died. Wells noted that this was a particularly bad outbreak of the fever; even passenger trains had stopped running, presumably to stop the spread of the fever. Memphis, about 50 miles to the north of Holly Springs, was the hardest hit of all inland cities. It was not surprising, then, that Holly Springs also lost a large percentage of their small population in the outbreak.

Roughly 17,000 people were sickened and over 5,000 people died in the outbreak in Memphis. The mayor of Holly Springs refused to quarantine the city, and, predictably, people fleeing Memphis to escape the fever quickly found Holly Springs. The mayor’s poor planning likely contributed to the 304 deaths in Holly Springs (reported by October 1878). It should be noted, however, that at that time, no one understood how the fever was spread; it was only later that they discovered it was spread by mosquitos. 12

Under the instruction of Spires Boling, Jim Wells had become a Master Mason. He built the house on the Boling plantation in which Wells was born (and now a museum dedicated to her legacy), but through his successful carpentry business, he had put aside quite a bit of money.

As noted above, an Irish woman had come to the Wells home to care for the sick. Wells’ sister observed this woman rifling through her father’s pockets. Concerned, she asked the doctor who frequented their home during the outbreak, Dr. Gray, if he could put her father’s life savings - $300 - in a safe place. Dr. Gray agreed, and gave them a receipt. After the death of their parents a few days later, and when asked, Dr. Gray returned their money. Wells spoke fondly of Dr. Gray for many years after.

Little is written about Wells’ siblings, but she was deeply devoted to them. One brother, Eddie, had died several years earlier, of spinal meningitis. Her youngest brother, Stanley, an infant, died alongside her parents. Most of the remaining seven children fell ill, but none died. The community quickly rallied to offer support to the seven orphaned children. Sadly, though, there was a point at which it was decided that the children would have to be separated. Wells strongly opposed that decision and resolved to find work to keep her brothers and sisters together. Even though she was just 16 years old, her education at Shaw University enabled her to secure a job as a school teacher in a nearby town. Her grandmother moved into the family home, to care for her siblings. Wells rode a donkey home on the weekends to cook and clean for her family. Then, tragedy struck the Wells family again: Her grandmother soon suffered a paralytic stroke, which left her unable to care for the children.

Wells’ sister, Eugenia - the only sibling who was “seemingly immune” to the fever - had become paralyzed from (probable) scoliosis the year before. When arrangements were made to separate the children, it was decided that Eugenia would be sent to the poor house, because no one wanted her or Wells. This may have been the driving force behind Wells refusing to separate her siblings. After her grandmother’s stroke, Wells realized that a split was inevitable. Her Aunt Belle (her mother’s sister, the one who had been sold with Lizzie) saved the day and agreed to take in “Genie” and their two brothers. It was determined that the brothers would work Aunt Belle’s farm; they grew up to be carpenters, like their father. Wells took the two youngest girls with her to Shelby County, Tennessee, where she had secured a home and a better-paying teaching position. 13

1http://www.idabwellsmonument.org

2 http://files.usgwarchives.net/ms/tippah/census/1840/pg0174.txt

3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 13 Preface, two versions, (5 p.); Chapters I through VI, (30 p.), Chapters VII through XVI (42 p.); "Shipmates on first voyage to England... Chapter 5 of my first writing" in pencil; newspaper clippings, 1893 (https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0001-001.pdf)

5https://hillcountryhistory.org/2015/08/13/holly-springs-boling-gatewood-house-1860/

9https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/m/mcmurry-waters.html

10 Wells notes in her memoir that she was 14 when she began teaching. However, she would have been 16 years old in 1878, the year her parents died.

11,12 http://msgw.org/marshall/locales/victims.php

#bhm #BlackHistoryMonth #BlackHistory #bhm #feb #february #american #blacklivesmatter #blackpeople

© 2018 Carrie Peterson

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