A quick warning: this episode contains discussions about lynching and sexual assault.
Brandon Pope: Journalist. Activist. One of the most famous Black women of her time.
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Archiva GMA: Ida B. Wells said the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.
Archive WGN: She dedicated her life’s work to fighting racism and inequality, but she was also a fierce advocate for African-American women.
Archive ABC24: A woman who was willing to sacrifice everything.
Brandon Pope: From WBEZ Chicago. This is Making, I’m Brandon Pope. Today, Making Ida B. Wells. In a divided America, she shined a light on racist laws and public lynchings in the Deep South - with investigative reporting that shook the nation. In the face of egregious violence, what does it take to tear down the oppressor? What were the critical moments that shaped Ida B. Wells?
Brandon Pope: Joining us are three guests who can dissect her legacy. Acclaimed historian and activist Paula Giddings who authored the biography Ida: A Sword Among Lions.
Paula Giddings: Ida Wells really is the founder of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Brandon Pope: The Atlantic journalist Caitlin Dickerson, who wrote Ida’s New York Times obituary for their series “Overlooked.”
Caitlin Dickerson: She was so compellingly correct about things that the country really did not want to acknowledge.
Brandon Pope: And Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter Michelle Duster, author of several books celebrating her legacy.
Michelle Duster: Ida B. Wells influenced America by using truth as a weapon.
Brandon Pope: That’s today on Making.
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Ida B. Wells: “I was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, before the close of the Civil War. My parents, who had been slaves and married as such, were married again after freedom came.”
Brandon Pope: Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in rural Mississippi, just six months before Emancipation. With newfound freedom, Wells’ parents were ambitious. Her father James Wells was a political activist and little Ida was surrounded by radical thinkers.
Ida B. Wells: “My earliest recollections are of reading the newspaper to my father and an admiring group of his friends. He was interested in politics and I heard the words Ku Klux Klan long before I knew what they meant.”
Brandon Pope: As an early teen, she attended Rust College, a school for newly-freed enslaved people. Her father was on the board.
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Brandon Pope: But, when Ida was 16 years old, she received tragic news after her parents got sick with yellow fever.
Ida B. Wells: “I read the first page of this letter through, telling the progress of the fever, and these words leaped out at me, “Jim and Lizzie Wells have both died of the fever. They died within twenty-four hours of each other.”
Brandon Pope: Ida, the eldest, became head of house for her five siblings. She had help from the Freemasons, a fraternal society that her Uncle was a part of. She took the city schoolteacher’s exam and began teaching in Memphis, earning for the family and raising the kids.
Brandon Pope: Now, Michelle, these are your great, great grandparents we're talking about. They were enslaved when Ida was born… Ida was enslaved when she was born. Tell us, what were Ida B. Wells’s parents like?
Michelle Duster: Well, first of all one of the things that's very important that shaped my idea of what kind of environment Ida grew up in, was that Holly Springs, Mississippi it was considered like an urban area, which is a very different experience than growing up in, you know, in the fields. And her father was a carpenter, and her mother was a cook. So they were considered, quote, house slaves versus field, right? And so, because he was sort of maybe treated better than some other people who had been enslaved, some of the other type of experiences that we usually hear about, her father grew up with a sense of independence, and with more opportunities. And her mother was a cook. And she was born in Virginia as one of several children. And she was sold from Virginia at the age of seven to several different people, and ultimately ended up in Holly Springs. And so being ripped away from her parents never seeing her parents again and from what I understand, hearing her mother's story, was hugely influential when it came to Ida's idea of making sure that she and her siblings stayed together .
Brandon Pope: So Caitlin. You wrote Ida B. Wells' obituary for the New York Times. Can you give us some context here? What did the early Reconstruction Era look like? And what did it mean for young Ida to grow up during a time like this?
Caitlin Dickerson: Sure. So two years after Ida B. Wells was born, slavery was abolished. And so she grew up during Reconstruction, her father and the other Black men in her life could not only vote but be politically active. Black men were being elected to state legislatures in the south. So it was a period of beginning to right, in a way, and emphasis on the word beginning, the wrongs and the horrors and the injustice of slavery. But when she's a teenager, it goes away largely right, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is pretty much gutted, paving the way for Jim Crow. And so, she grows up observing this really dramatic change in circumstances for Black people, and I think, perhaps developed, a kind of audacity to demand better of this country based on her coming of age experiences.
Brandon Pope: Absolutely. Now, Michelle, I kind of want to pivot to the death of her parents, a tragedy for any young person. Give me a sense, Michelle, of how this tragedy sort of shaped Ida B. Wells and impacted her and her growth and development going forward.
Michelle Duster: When she was 16 years old, she was visiting her grandmother, her father's mother in Tippah County, Mississippi. And she was there for several weeks. And she got word while she was there that both of her parents passed away within a day of each other from the yellow fever epidemic. And of course, she was shocked because she assumed that her parents had left Holly Springs for you know, for safety, but in keeping with sort of their personalities her father who as a carpenter stayed behind and made coffins for the people who were passing away. And her mother was feeding people. So in the midst of helping others, they, you know, perished. And so Ida was told not to go back to Holly Springs, but she was like, I can't leave all my siblings by themselves. So she went back and nursed the ones that were ill and decided that she was going to do whatever she could to keep the family together, and I believe that that was hugely part of, you know, the results of what the stories her mother had told her of her siblings being broken apart, she didn't want that to happen to her and her siblings.
Caitlin Dickerson: You know, in researching Ida's life struck doesn't even begin to describe the reaction to just the principled way in which she lived her life. And you most often hear about it in the context of her journalism and her work. But it's also true as we're discussing, from a very young age in terms of the way that she participates in her family and just - and sees it as a sense of, of duty, of commitment, she decides it's her responsibility to take care of her siblings, and continues to pursue her own education at the same time, even lying about her own age, so that she can work to support the kids. She just is such a principled person with a clear sense of duty and a clear sense of responsibility and just this ability to put others first, whether it was her younger siblings or whether it was, as we'll get to later, the victims of lynching who she dedicates her life to remembering at great, great, profound decades long cost to her personally.
Brandon Pope: Ida was 21 when a train ride gone wrong changed the course of her life. Onboard the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, she was ordered to give up her seat in the ladies’ car. She refused, and was forcibly removed by three men.
Ida B. Wells: “He tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand.”
Brandon Pope: She sued. She won the case at the local level but was defeated by the State Supreme Court. The case lit a fire within her. She wrote about the experience in her Black church newspaper The Living Way. And she kept writing.
Ida B. Wells: “I wrote in a plain, common-sense way on the things which concerned our people. Knowing that their education was limited, I never used a word of two syllables where one would serve the purpose. I signed these articles ‘Iola’.”
Brandon Pope: A few years later, she became the editor and co-owner of the Black-owned newspaper The Free Speech and Headlight. She was just 27 years old, openly attacking racist Jim Crow policy.
Brandon Pope: All right, so Paula Giddings, I want to come to you now. You authored the biography, Ida: A Sword Among Lions. So, can you walk us through what happened to Ida on this train? And what did this racist encounter mean for Ida B. Wells at the time?
Paula Giddings: She rode in what was called the lady's car, the Chesapeake and Ohio railway. And I don't want to get too much in the weeds, but what's interesting about this is that this was a separate but equal issue. And there were three cars on the railways. One was a mixed car with blacks and whites. But that was a smoker's car. There was a first class colored car, and a first class, ladies car. And everything is fluid at this point, because we're separate but equal. So what is up for definition is if Black women could actually be considered ladies. The colored car had no gender designation, which is very interesting. And Blacks used to say in the colored car we’re neither men nor women. Whites would come from the first class lady's car to come and smoke and drink and curse in the colored car, and then go back to the lady's car, which was pristine, and where people had to keep to the rules. So on this day, in September of 1883, Ida looks at the colored car and sees drunken white men in there. So she says, I have a first class ticket. I deserve to be in a first class car, and I'm certainly a lady. She proceeds to the lady's car, but the scuffle ensues and she takes the case to court. So what's so interesting even when you say that she wins the case in the - locally, it was a really a circuit judge case circuit judge deemed her that in fact, she was a lady. So now she legally becomes a lady standing in for Black women legally become ladies. After she wins the local case, though, in 1884, this is when she really begins in earnest her career as a journalist, because local newspapers asked her to write about the decision and about the case. And this is the golden age of the Black press, when there are about 200 Black newspapers being published every week. And this is when she says, through journalism, I found the real me. So now she has her mission as a journalist. And later on, she will understand that the old rules don't abide. That it's time for protest and revolution.
Brandon Pope: What a pivotal moment there. You know, Caitlin, Ida, she was fired from her teaching job for these fiery articles that she ended up doing. She ended up taking journalism full time afterward. Can you kind of paint a picture for us of what kind of journalist Ida B. Wells was?
Caitlin Dickerson: The word that comes to mind for me is incisive. You know, she combines the two things that we all strive for most, which is, rigorous, thorough, unequivocally accurate reporting, but also delivery that is powerful, a delivery that shakes people and not just people who already agreed with her, but people who actually were convinced by her. I recall a letter that Frederick Douglass wrote to her about her writing, where he says, you know, there's been no word equal to it in convincing power. I've spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison. And, you know, few people think back on Frederick Douglass and his writing as feeble. So her work is just really arresting because it combines those two powerful and rare skills. And whether we know it or not, so many journalists continue to draw from her legacy in their work today. I certainly try to.
Paula Giddings: In the beginning of her career, you know, most women who were in the press, and there were women, Black women in the press in this period of time, but they were writing lady's columns. And Wells begins that way too. But she emerges, beginning to write about politics. And you know, by 1889, there's an article about her, that says that she's one of the few journalists that is read equally by men and by women. So she also gets a lot of pushback about transgressing gender roles. You know, I'm not going to say, Ida was not particularly a popular person in her own time. Because she was a person who never looked to the left or to the right. You know, whatever was right, she was going to do it. She would call out her peers, if she felt that they weren't sufficiently loyal to the race. She was not that easy to get along with because she was very moralistic, you know. And I was surprised in looking at the books, and the writings of her contemporaries, as often she wasn't even mentioned. Because I think part of that idea was if you can't say something nice about somebody don't say anything.
Caitlin Dickerson: And I would just add to Paula's point that the degree to which Ida Wells, frustrated colleagues, and perhaps even family for her very, very clear convictions. I mean, I just, I think about it in the professional context, because doing good journalism actually means that you're not making any friends, you know, it's a bad sign. If there's one group of people who think of you as, quote, unquote, on their side, and another who think of you as being in opposition to them. You know, that's a very bad sign as a journalist, and it's also… It's difficult, at the same time to do the work and continue to get the access that you need to do the work when, when people view you as objective and tough, you know, equally across the board on everybody. It's just something I think about sometimes in my reporting, if I, if I get down about everybody being mad at me, I like to think of Ida B. Wells in those moments.
Brandon Pope: Michelle?
Michelle Duster: Well, one of the things that I found interesting about her writing style, especially as she got more into, exposing the realities regarding lynching was how she used other people's words against them. And so, I mean, to me, it was brilliant. To me, it was like equivalent to, you know, taking screenshots of Twitter posts or whatever, and just saying, “Well, you said this.” And she she did that even in the suffrage movement, so she basically let people incriminate themselves.
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Brandon Pope: More Making in a minute.
Brandon Pope: Thomas Moss ran a grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee. It was successful, and that success threatened nearby white store owners. In 1892, he and his business partners were lynched. Moss and Wells were friends, and she was horrified and outraged. She began investigating the scourge of lynchings across the South. At the time, white mobs justified lynchings by claiming they were punishment for the raping of white women. Wells knew better.
Ida B. Wells: “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women.”
Brandon Pope: She interviewed witnesses on the ground. She collected data from newspapers. She found that in two-thirds of lynchings, no one was accused of rape. She wrote a fiery editorial.
Ida B. Wells: “This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was: an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.”
Brandon Pope: White people in Memphis were outraged with Ida. One newspaper editor wanted her burned at the stake. She quickly fled just before a mob raided her paper and burned it down.
Ida B. Wells: “Burning and torture here lasts but a little while, but if I die with a lie on my soul, I shall be tortured forever. I am innocent.”
Brandon Pope: Michelle, let's talk about the horrendous murders that changed Ida B. Wells’ life. What happened in this case? And how did Ida respond to it?
Michelle Duster: Well Ida was not actually in Memphis when these murders took place. She was in Natchez, Mississippi selling subscriptions to the newspaper which she had decided was going to be her, her new career, her focus because she had lost her teaching job. So when she returned back to Memphis, is when she heard about the murderers. And of course, was shocked. Thomas Moss was a very close enough friend to her that she was the godmother of his daughter. So they were very close. You know, it was shocking. And from what I understand, lynching was not very common in urban areas at that time. So the combination of the fact that it was, you know, one of the first lynchings that had taken place in Memphis, and it was somebody that she knew. And the fact that these people were enterprising business owners, all of that combined made her reexamine the whole narrative of, you know, Black men violating white women when she knew absolutely, that was not the case, in this situation. And it propelled her to investigate other lynchings, to see how many other innocent people had been killed. And if the reason was sort of control of the African American community, but specifically, the African Americans who were considered successful.
Paula Giddings: Michelle's observation about the lynching taking place in the city, just brought to mind what was another important thing about Ida Wells' ideas around lynching. Was, she understood that lynching was a modern phenomenon, that a lot of Black elites thought lynching was something of the past. And if we're just respectable and behave ourselves, I mean, good people don't get lynched was sort of the the thought process at the time that you must be doing something wrong. And so that was a part of the respectability politics. Wells understood that there's a new racism and discrimination and violence that is coming with the industrialization of America, that's coming with the modernization of America. And she's trying to tell people that this is an inherent, now an organic part of so-called progress. So protest was really very, very important in this period, so she understands, she's always ahead of others. And she understands this, and it's a pretty profound observation on her part.
Brandon Pope: Absolutely, and I just think about, you know, you mentioned the respectability politics of the time. We see some of those same respectability politics kind of echoed today - get dressed a certain way, act a certain way.
Paula Giddings: It's still, it's still with us. That's our… That's what we… That's our part of Black intellectual thought of, you know, those two warring ideas.
Brandon Pope: Caitlin, I want to bring you in here and kind of hear from your perspective. What journalism tactics did Ida B. Wells revolutionize or bring to the forefront?
Caitlin Dickerson: She did a few things that I think created a foundation that, you know, we all benefit from today, and learn from today. You know, one is that she just hits the pavement and checks the records and does the research and it's painstaking. You know, both in that it takes a long time. And it's difficult and it requires a lot of meticulousness. It's also deeply painful to, to go out, you know, after her friend is murdered – after Tommy moss is murdered – and research these other cases of lynchings, to see if there's any real truth behind the allegations that were put up to justify these actions. You know, in most cases, she finds there is not. And she documents that so clearly that you can't challenge it and then she also at the same time, spends time getting to know the stories of people who were killed, what were their likes and their dislikes, who were their families, what were their hopes and aspirations. She wants to make sure that these individuals are remembered and fears that they won't be. And you know, fears that they'll just be sort of lost to the wind, lost to history. And so she combines those two things, again, in a way that just really makes a reader feel implicated. Because you're faced at once with the humanity of this person who was killed. And that was what she'd so often talked about, and sought to convey, right? Was the humanity of Black people, that Black people are people, varied and complex. And you know, our parts of families and our business owners and our all these different things. She felt like that was missing, and indeed it was.
Brandon Pope: So Paula, how did the American public respond to Ida's work? How did her peers even respond to her work?
Paula Giddings: She challenged everyone, Blacks, Whites, Men, Women, Gender, Race, Class. So obviously, there's going to be some pushback. What is often under reported about her though, is that this anti lynching campaign, particularly after she comes back from England, becomes very, very important and becomes a national, a really national campaign. Lynching now is on the platform of every Republican presidential nominee. It was, it was such a reflection of what was wrong with America. That this was - that this was some rot inside the country. I mean, really, this is, this is the beginning of Black Lives Matter. I mean, this is the beginning of humanizing people who were killed. They weren't the brutes that the white press said that they were. They had families. She talked about their position in the communities. And it was very important for her to mention as many names as possible, because she was very upset that some of these lynchings went on, you know, people couldn't always claim the bodies with impunity, after they were lynched. And sometimes people sort of buried the idea that loved ones had been lynched. And this was very impactful to her. And just let me just say, one quick story. I was on a panel talking about Ida Wells. And a woman comes up to me, grabs my hand. And she says, before we read your book, Paula, we didn't know what happened to our great, great grandfather. And I had mentioned his name, because she mentioned names, I tried to mention names too, and mentioned him as a man who had been lynched. And that's how they found out what had happened to him, that family. And so it was important for her to make us really see who these people were, that were being murdered with impunity.
Brandon Pope: Saying their name, so important. You can see those through lines there. And that is a really excellent story you gave there and some great perspective. So, those were Ida B. Wells “Making” years. She went on to found the NAACP and the NACW, which is the National Association of Colored Women. The year before she passed, she even ran for state senate but was unsuccessful. Caitlin, I want to ask you about her obituary, which was published in The New York Times series “Overlooked” back in 2018. How did readers respond to that?
Caitlin Dickerson: There was a massive, massive, massive response to that obituary, greater than, you know, I think any of us expected, but it's because of all of these ways in which Ida Wells is so important in the history of civil rights, of journalism, of womanhood. And as Paula said, we almost never found out about it. You know, the New York Times never wrote her obituary when she initially died. That's why it was assigned to me so many decades later. And when you look at the totality of her life, I mean, she's just had such a profound impact that really shook people. And you know, people felt like she had been overlooked, like she'd impacted their lives in ways that they may not have even realized. So I think there's a lot of hunger to learn more about Ida B. Wells, because, you know, there's so much - as Michelle and Paula well know, there's so much that we can't even begin to scratch the surface of in this conversation.
Brandon Pope: Michelle, this might be a tough question for you, but I definitely want to make sure to ask it. If your great grandmother was born in today's age, how do you think that her fiery and radical brand would be perceived? Would she be embraced today? Or would she be criticized today?
Michelle Duster: I think she would probably be criticized the same way that she was during her time. I think that even though you know, things have changed in the past 130 years or so when it comes to opportunities for women, I think there are still sort of double standards when it comes to the personality traits that people have. And if a woman has that trait, then she's considered to be difficult and shrill. And I mean, we could… We've seen this even in some of the political campaigns today, you know, you see how if a woman says one thing, she's sort of viewed in a negative way. And if a man says the exact same thing, then he's considered to be a leader. And he's tough. And, you know, so I think that there are still sort of different standards for how men and women are viewed, even if they're doing and saying the same thing.
Brandon Pope: Paula, what do you think about that?
Paula Giddings: I agree with much of what Michelle said, but also in some ways, we have caught up to Ida Wells, who was so far ahead of everyone in terms of modes of protest, in terms of women leading organizations, and founding organizations, political organizations, and radical organizations. And she's partly, in part, responsible for that, because she lays the foundation and the groundwork for that. So in some ways, we've caught up to Ida Wells, but in other ways, what Michelle says is also true. That, you know, people who are not afraid to go against convention and against the grain, have a difficult time. I think they have a very fulfilling life in the end. She was much more fulfilled and sort of ready to go and doing new things all the time. That's one part of that legacy of that kind of personality. The other part is that you get beat up all the time, you know?
Brandon Pope: You know, this is a broad question here. It'll be our final question. But it's a question that needs to be asked. You know, the podcast series is called Making. Paula, I'll start with you. What legacy did Ida B. Wells make?
Paula Giddings Ida Wells really is the founder of the modern Civil Rights Movement and Black nationalism too. And so, I mean, she's really at the beginning of all of these ideas that we now often take for granted. We think about intersectional ideas as relatively new, or at least the codification of them as new. But Ida dealt in that kind of intersectional universe, where she understood how race impacted on gender and class and sexuality. So, she opens up all of these ideas, both discursively, but also in terms of protest as well.
Brandon Pope: Michelle?
Michelle Duster: I mean, to me, her legacy is that she believed that every person who lives in the United States of America deserves the same rights. And no matter who they were, no matter what gender, what race, what class, everybody should have equal access and equal rights. When it came to voting rights, when it came to housing rights, when it came to, you know, policing and education, I mean, she worked in a lot of these different areas. And to me, the common thread through all of it was that we are all Americans, and we all have the same rights in every way.
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Brandon Pope: I mean, this was such an awesome conversation about one of my journalism heroes, and one of my civil rights heroes. So I'm really thankful for this. Here at WBEZ, we actually walk in every single day and there’s this Ida B. Wells quote on the wall. When you first walk in it says, “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” And we let that inspire us every single day. So, I want to thank all three of you for spending some time with us to discuss this trailblazing woman. Thank you so much.
Caitlin Dickeron: Thank you so much.
Paula Giddings: Thank you very much.
Brandon Pope: This episode of Making was produced by Heena Srivastava and Justin Bull. I’m your host Brandon Pope. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. Special thanks this week to the Ida B. Wells foundation as well as Taylor Fey Nazon for help with this episode. And a big thanks to you for listening. Be sure to press the subscribe button if you haven’t already, and we’ll see you next week.
WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.