Dr. Gemma Beckley
- Dr. Gemma Beckley is a retired Trustee Distinguished Professor and Professor Emeritus of Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi.
During the ten years from 1882- 1892 that Ida Wells lived in Memphis, Tennessee her accomplishments were momentous and placed a stamp on her importance as a noted teacher, extraordinary journalist and one of the founding leaders of the Anti-Lynching Movement.
Ida Belle Wells has come from “Humble Beginnings,” 1862 – 1882, with a climb toward “Equality and Justice during: The Memphis Years,” 1882-1892.
The dramatic events during the Memphis Years forced Ida Wells’ departure in 1892. Those events sealed her reputation as one of the most important leaders of the anti-lynching movement.
Wells’ journalistic skills along with her social and political influence is unprecedented among women in the 19th century and particularly African American women.
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Though forced out of Memphis, Ida had drawn the attention of many influential leaders around the United States and abroad. She moves now to New York and the significance of her work is recognized throughout Europe as she continues political activism through her journalism, lectures, and international network of contacts.
The first travel abroad to expand her fight for equality began in 1893 to the British Isles and onto London where she is called upon to carry the message of the anti-lynching movement.
The destruction of the Ida Wells’ “Free Speech” newspaper in 1892 the and threats to her life, pushed her into exile in New York. Ida Wells focused her reporting on the atrocities being waged against African Americans.
Beginning in 1892 the account of these events of lynching and murders reached an all-time peak. According to one account approximately 241 people lost their lives through mob attacks leading to murders to include lynching and 66% of these were of African Americans.
Among the many leaders that took notice of Ida Wells’ clear and notable documentation of these atrocities was Frederick Douglass. It was her book “A Red Record” that brought about this attention.
Frederick Douglass had published an essay entitled “Lynch Law in the South” in the Boston based North American Review. Douglass’ essays supported the view that new leaders such as women and clergy were needed in the fight toward equality. Those leaders included Ida Wells as promoted by Frederick Douglass.
When Ida Wells moved to New York, her new home now in exile was located at 395 Gold Street, Brooklyn, New York. Until 1898 Brooklyn was a separate city. This area was known as Vinegar Hill. With a population of 795,000 residents, only 10,000 were Black.
Ida’s home was in close proximity to several well-known figures of the era.
Jerome Peterson, co-editor and publisher of The Age was one of those well known figures. Ida had a slight income as a trade off from her Free Speech subscription which she had smuggled out of Memphis. She also received a correspondent’s salary for work with other papers. She wrote each week under the heading of “Iola’s Southern Field.”
Ida’s celebrity status is elevated
In addition to writing, her association with persons of notoriety gave her entry into literary circles belonging to a plethora of lyceums that featured lectures, concerts, and important discussions. The Brooklyn Literary Union, The Concord Literary Circle, the Progressive Literary Union, Star Lyceums, all well attended according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
An influence of Ida’s first trip abroad in 1893 was the broadening of the world view of the women’s movement. “The World’s Columbian Exposition was nearing. Its theme was the progress of civilization since Columbus landfall in 1492, and the exposition was to be the ultimate showcase representing American achievement—including that of women—and its vaunted place in the scheme of world civilization.”
A nationwide Board of Lady Managers were appointed. Black women had begun lobbying for inclusion, however they were not included. There is evidence of a resolution eventually but not before this incident brings attention to the continued racial injustice. These factors propelled the knowledge of injustices both nationally and internationally.
A well-known founding editor of an European magazine had fought for the struggle on Indian Anti-Caste system. At this time India was under colonization of England. This journal focused on the plight of natives of India but also supported movements by other persons of color, including African Americans. This is a part of the long tradition of Quaker activists who had as early as 1783, established the first anti-slavery society in Britain.
The reality of these injustices culminates in the midst the Christian movement of the late 1800’s. This is a realization of the rapid worldwide industrialization and a question of the direction of religious purpose.
Ida Wells contributions in bringing to reality the injustice and lack of equality in the United States, and abroad continued throughout her life. Beyond these years in New York and the beginnings of her travel abroad Ida moves on to Chicago, Illinois. Her work included one of the founders of the NAACP; founder of the National Association of Colored Women; several women’s clubs to identify a few.
In 1910, Ida Wells–Barnett established the first Black settlement house – The Negro Fellowship League.
The settlement house followed the effort of Frederick Douglass and Jane Adams’ Hull House, previous settlement houses. Ida Wells was featured on the cover of the Social Work Journal, celebrating the 100th year anniversary of the profession. Ida’s settlement house was distinctive.
The representation of the name “Negro” in promotion of racial solidarity rather than inter –racialism. “Fellowship” highlights a religious component and sense of mission and commitment. “League” emphasized and accented social action.
Among her many other contributions, the establishment of this settlement house appears to be one that encompasses action representative of many aspects of Ida B. Wells Barnett’s life contributions. This is where my first depth of interest in Ida Wells began.
Ida Wells was a pioneer in social work and the depth of her contribution to it is continually being explored.
Dr. Gemma Beckley is a retired Trustee Distinguished Professor and Professor Emeritus of Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi.
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