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Vassallo: Ida B. Wells-Barnett – a Mississippi Legend Lost in Time

Ida B. Wells Barnett, in a photograph by Mary Garrity from c. 1893. It has been restored by Adam Cuerden and is featured on Wikipedia.
Ida B. Wells Barnett, in a photograph by Mary Garrity from c. 1893. It has been restored by Adam Cuerden and is featured on Wikipedia.

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist and someone who risked her life multiple times for what she strongly believed.

Ida was one of the founders of the NAACP who was born into slavery in Holly Springs in 1862. Unfortunately, very few Mississippians have ever heard of this historical figure. It has taken a recent motion picture “Hillary’s America” to reflect on the greatness of this individual.

Let’s examine the historical record and find out who this famous lady truly was. To begin with, Ida was a member of the Republican Party and as an adult documented lynching in the United States in the 1890s. She was active in women’s rights while establishing several women’s organizations. She traveled extensively worldwide promoting her causes.

Months after Ida was born, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in the Confederacy. Her enslaved parents were owned by Spires Bolling, an architect. Ida was one of eight children. Both of Ida’s parents were active in the Republican Party during the Reconstruction era.

Ida had a most difficult childhood. At age 16 (1878) while visiting her grandmother, she learned that Holly Springs had been subjected to a yellow fever epidemic which took the lives of her parents and infant brother. In order to keep the remaining family members together, Ida worked as a teacher to support herself and the surviving siblings. She earned $30 a month during a time when white teachers were earning $80.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett is remembered in a museum located in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett is remembered in a museum located in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Eventually, she would relocate to Memphis in order to earn more money. During this time in her life, she became active in journalism. Because of her outspoken views against lynching and segregation, she was finally forced to flee the city as her life was on the line. More than 6,000 African Americans also fled the city at this time because of violence and a dual standard of justice.

Her accomplishments are far too many to even attempt to describe in this short of an article. Regarding her personal life, she married attorney Ferdinand Barnett in 1895 and was one of the first married American women to retain her own last name while taking her husband’s. The couple had four children which greatly restricted Ida’s professional life and travel. Her autobiography “A Divided Duty” highlights this conflict between family and career.

During the final thirty years of her life, she lived in Chicago engaged in urban reform. After retiring, she began writing another autobiography, “Crusade for Justice” (1928) which was never completed. Ida died in 1931 at the age of 68, having experienced one of the more adventurous personal journeys that anyone could ever imagine. In 1990, the United States Postal Service issued a 25 cent stamp in her honor.

(Special gratitude to Wikipedia for the historical references and to Hoppy Langley for bringing the life of this Mississippi legend to my attention.)

Steve Vassallo

Steve Vassallo is a HottyToddy.com contributor. Steve writes on Ole Miss athletics, Oxford business, politics and other subjects. He is an Ole Miss grad and former radio announcer for the basketball team. Currently, Steve is a highly successful leader in the real estate business who lives in Oxford with his wife Rosie. You can contact Steve at sovassallo@gmail.com or call him at 985-852-7745.

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