“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” ― Ida B. Wells-Barnett
This spring and summer in Downtown Nashville, demonstrators have proclaimed an area in front of the Tennessee State Capitol building as the “Ida B. Wells Plaza.”
They hung a banner carrying those words where the statue of Edward Carmack once stood before being toppled by protestors in May. Carmack, then a Memphis newspaperman and later the editor of The Nashville Tennessean, once incited a mob against Wells, whose newspaper office in Memphis was destroyed in 1892.
It’s not the first time Wells-Barnett — legendary journalist, educator, suffragist and human rights activist — has been acknowledged and honored in Nashville.
A public magnet school, Ida B. Wells Elementary School on 244 Foster Ave. in East Nashville, is named after her.
While best remembered for her activism in Memphis and later Chicago, Wells-Barnett also spent important time in Nashville as a young women.
As a teacher in Memphis — at age 16 both her parents and a brother died of yellow fever, leaving her to raise her surviving siblings — she attended Nashville’s historically Black Fisk University during her summer vacations.
Wells-Barnett went on to become an early leader in both the civil rights and suffragist movements. She is one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association of Colored Women.
Born into slavery in Mississippi during the Civil War, she first came on the national scene in Memphis after suing a train company for forcefully removing her from a first-class train car despise having a ticket. Although she ultimately lost her case on appeal in the state Supreme Court, her challenge of Jim Crow laws altered her life immeasurably, earning her the description “dangerous radical.”
As an investigative journalist and newspaper owner in Memphis, Wells-Barnett was one of the first journalists to document lynching in the United States. In 1892, she published an influential pamphlet titled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.”
She soon was forced to move out of the South after her newspaper offices were destroyed, but continued writing and speaking out against lynching in the U.S. and abroad.
Wells-Barnett estimated that nearly 3,500 men, women and children had been lynched between 1885 and 1912 in the U.S.
In 2020 she was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
As Tennessee and the country celebrated the passing of the 19th Amendment and the women’s right to vote, Wells-Barnett also is remembered as an important figure in the suffrage movement.
She founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, which sent her as a delegate to the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s procession in 1913 in Washington, D.C. — the first such parade in the nation’s capital.
The National Park Service describes the scene:
“Ida B. Wells-Barnett traveled to Washington, D.C. with the Illinois delegation and fully expected to march with them. As the group was lining up to begin the procession, the white suffrage leaders suddenly asked Wells-Barnett not to march with her fellow suffragists from Illinois and instead assume a place in the back of the procession.
“Wells-Barnett refused and left the area. Instead, she waited along the side of Pennsylvania Avenue until the Illinois group marched by. Then she and two white allies stepped in front of the Illinois delegation and continued in the procession.”
The Washington march turned out to be a defining moment in the suffrage movement, attracting thousands of participants and some 250,000 onlookers. Here’s how the National Park Service describes that day:
“The marchers found themselves trapped in a sea of hostile, jeering men who yelled vile insults and sexual propositions at them. They were manhandled and spat upon. The women reported that they received no assistance from nearby police officers, who looked on bemusedly or admonished the women that they wouldn’t be in this predicament if they had stayed home.
“Although a few women fled the terrifying scene, most were determined to continue. They locked arms and faced the ambush, some through tears. When they could, they ignored the taunts. Some brandished banner poles, flags, and hatpins to ward off attack. They held their ground until the U.S. Army troops arrived about an hour later to clear the street so that the procession could continue.”
A fearless crusader, accepting no compromise on gender and racial inequality, Ida B. Wells-Barnett remained defiantly on the front lines of the struggle for truth and justice until her death in 1931.