Ida: A Sword Among Lions


In the tradition of towering biographies that tell us as much about America as they do about their subject, Ida: A Sword Among Lions is a sweepingnarrative about a country and a crusader embroiled in the struggle against lynching: a practice that imperiled not only the lives of blackmen and women, but also a nation based on law and riven by race.

At the center of the national drama is Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), born to slaves in Mississippi, who began her activist career by ...

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In the tradition of towering biographies that tell us as much about America as they do about their subject, Ida: A Sword Among Lions is a sweepingnarrative about a country and a crusader embroiled in the struggle against lynching: a practice that imperiled not only the lives of blackmen and women, but also a nation based on law and riven by race.

At the center of the national drama is Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), born to slaves in Mississippi, who began her activist career by refusing to leave a first-class ladies’ car on a Memphis railway and rose to lead the nation’s firstcampaign against lynching. For Wells the key to the rise in violence was embedded in attitudes not only about black men but about women and sexuality as well. Her independent perspective and percussive personality gained her encomiums as a hero — as well as aspersions on her character and threats of death. Exiled from the South by 1892, Wells subsequently took her campaign across the country and throughout the British Isles before she married and settled in Chicago, where she continued her activism as a journalist, suffragist, and independent candidate in the rough-and-tumble world of the Windy City’s politics.

In this eagerly awaited biography by Paula J. Giddings, author of the groundbreaking book When and Where I Enter, which traced the activisthistory of black women in America, the irrepressible personality of Ida B. Wells surges out of the pages. With meticulous research and vivid rendering of her subject, Giddings also provides compelling portraits of twentieth-century progressive luminaries, black and white, with whom Wells worked during some of the most tumultuous periods in American history. Embattled all of her activist life, Wells found herself fighting not only conservative adversaries but icons of the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements who sought to undermine her place in history.

In this definitive biography, which places Ida B. Wells firmly in the context of her times as well as ours, Giddings at long last gives this visionary reformer her due and, in the process, sheds light on an aspect of our history that isoften left in the shadows.

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Editorial Reviews

Women's Review of Books on When and Where I Enter
“The best interpretation of black women and race and sex that we have.”
Women's Review of Books
“The best interpretation of black women and race and sex that we have.”
“A hearty thumbs-up for this powerful retelling of her life.”
A sweeping and timely biographical narrative about Ida B. Wells...a paragon of American history.
“Paula J. Giddings IDA: A SWORD AMONG LIONS (Amistad) is a worthy biography of the vibrant crusader who led the nation’s first campaign against lynching.”
O magazine
“A groundbreaking biography gives this warrior her due.”
David Levering Lewis
“Ida B. Wells was an inspired journalist, an uncompromising civil libertarian, and a woman far ahead of her patriarchal times—a ‘difficult’ woman. Paula Giddings’s monumental achievement restores this extraordinary contrarian to her place as one of the grand pace-setters of American social justice and female empowerment.”
Toni Morrison
“History at its best—clear, intelligent, moving. Paula Giddings has written a book as priceless as its subject.”
Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore
Despite a long and influential career in journalism, social work and politics, Wells has not received the recognition she deserves. She left an unfinished autobiography, and other authors have dealt with her activism in various contexts. Giddings set out to write a definitive biography and has succeeded spectacularly. Ida gradually brings us to see the world through Wells's eyes; as she shops for a new seersucker suit that we know she can't afford or feels betrayed when fellow activists try to leave her off the list of founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we come to love this brave and wise woman. Read it and weep. Then give it to the last person who told you that ideals are a waste of time.
—The Washington Post
Richard Lingeman
Paula Giddings's devoted and scrupulous biography is not the first study of this pioneering woman, but it is a comprehensive work that attempts to portray her as part of the progressive movement that emerged among the black bourgeoisie in post-bellum America.
—The New York Times
School Library Journal

Giddings (Afro-American studies, Smith Coll.; When and Where I Enter) has written a massive study of this noted black activist's lifelong crusade against lynching. Prodigious research took Giddings to more than 30 archives; 100 pages of notes and bibliography attest to the depth of her scholarship. The result serves as a definitive biography of Wells. Giddings argues that her subject was a leading feminist as well as a crusader for civil rights. She explores Wells's optimism in the face of numerous setbacks, including ostracism from her home city of Memphis. The author concludes that Wells's unflinching focus on opposition to lynching ultimately was adopted by the NAACP as a central tenet, which helped lead to the NAACP's success as a civil rights organization. Much more complete than previous studies of Wells, e.g., by James West Davidson, Idais well written and painstakingly detailed. Highly recommended for all academic and major public libraries.
—A.O. Edmonds

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
Massive biography of an important yet little-known figure in American civil-rights history. Giddings (In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement, 1988, etc.) attempts to rescue from obscurity anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Born into slavery in Mississippi, Wells grew up during the brief post-Civil War period of political and social ascension in which blacks, particularly black women, challenged policies that segregated the races in public places and kept African-Americans out of the voting booth. In the1880s, a series of gruesome lynchings, described by the author in graphic, horrifying detail, ended the illusion that the South had progressed much and propelled Wells to action. In editorials, speeches and pamphlets distributed throughout the United States (and eventually England), she maintained that only equal rights would end lynching-and, even more controversially, that black Americans deserved civil rights simply because they were human. That position put her at odds with less radical members of the antiracist movement, including many women's suffrage groups and nationally prominent figures like Booker T. Washington, who held that blacks must move beyond ignorance and poverty and embrace bourgeois values before they could earn the rights enjoyed by white Americans. Throughout her life, Wells existed on the outskirts of African-American activism, alienating potential allies and estranging erstwhile friends such as Frederick Douglass. Although she is a fascinating woman, this book suffers from her biographer's lack of selectivity. Giddings spares no detail or scrap of salvaged paper, however obscure or immaterial. Asidesabout conflicts within the black women's club movement go on for chapters, and Wells's early love life, including lengthy quotes from her suitors' letters, gets far more space than it merits. Despite such overreporting, the author fails to explain how this remarkable figure disappeared from history, a glaring oversight in a text that takes pains to explore its subject's long and colorful life from every angle. Exhaustive-indeed, sometimes exhausting-but with a key piece missing. Agent: Lynn Nesbit/Janklow & Nesbit Associates
The Barnes & Noble Review
Here is a bare outline of Ida B. Wells's life, as Paula Giddings presents her in this well-crafted and deeply researched biography: born to slave parents in Mississippi in 1862, she spent a few years as a teacher and then became a journalist. Eventually, she led an international crusade against the crime of lynching. Her approach to this crusade brought her both admirers and critics. During her lifetime, at least, her own community never acknowledged all that she had done for the cause.

Giddings's A Sword Among Lions does a splendid job of filling in the details of this controversial life. Author of the widely admired When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, Giddings brings to this topic a deep knowledge of not only the details of Wells's life but also of the intricacies of the historical circumstances that affected Wells's career. The book is a major accomplishment.

Giddings begins with an exploration of the impact of the end of Reconstruction on southern African Americans. With the departure in 1877 of federal troops from the South, the region's black citizens were left virtually unprotected. When disputes between blacks and whites turned into fights, and fights turned into riots and massacres, local authorities stood by or, worse, took part in the violence themselves. With increasing frequency, African-American men, women, and even children were beaten, shot down, burned out, and lynched.

A Sword Among Lions reconstructs Wells's response to these horrors. Hers was a life that began in family tragedy. She had been studying to be a teacher in 1878 when yellow fever took the lives of her parents and their youngest child. Resolved to keep her five surviving siblings together, Wells took on their financial support. She dressed herself up to look older than her 16 years and got a job as a teacher in a town outside Memphis, Tennessee.

Soon she was challenging the racial politics of her times. In 1875, Congress had passed a Civil Rights Act that forbade racial discrimination in public accommodations, but then Tennessee passed a law allowing proprietors to exclude whomever they wished. In 1883, after a conductor on a local railroad ejected Wells from a whites-only "ladies' car," she sued, arguing that the "colored" and "white" cars were not equal. A lower court awarded her damages, but the decision was overturned in the state Supreme Court.

Wells's suit brought her local renown. The Memphis black press invited her to write articles, not just about her own case but about other instances of racial discrimination in her community. The Memphis Lyceum, an institution founded by black teachers, also invited her to speak. As conditions for African Americans grew worse, Wells sharpened her writing and oratorical skills. Increasingly fervent and powerful protests came from her pen. After the lynching in 1892 of three successful black Memphis grocers, one of whom had been a close friend, the course of Wells's life became set. She would become an acclaimed, audacious, and unswerving "crusader" for justice.

Giddings explains how Wells investigated first the Memphis lynching of 1892 and then similar events elsewhere. She traces the evolution of Wells's strategies for arousing public awareness of the causes of lynching. Some white supremacists claimed that the victims of lynching deserved their fate because they had committed sexual crimes against white women. Wells not only refuted the charge but dared to suggest that some sexual relations between white women and black men were consensual. This suggestion prompted a severe backlash; when Wells was out of town at a meeting, a newspaper she partly owned was destroyed, and threats were made against her life. Wells would not return to Memphis for three decades.

For the rest of her career (she died in 1931), Wells produced articles and pamphlets that demonstrated the role of race prejudice in lynching. Despite being criticized for raising the issue, she continued to press home the falsity of the rape charge. Since local authorities had proved useless in protecting black citizens, she also campaigned to make lynching a federal crime.

Not everyone in the civil rights community approved of Wells's tactics. Giddings shows how Wells alienated not only white supremacists but also supporters (white and black) like temperance leader Frances Willard, who could not accept Wells's focus on the rape issue. Giddings also dwells at length on Wells's relations with black community leaders, including black clubwomen, who at the time were counseling a more accommodationist strategy in their quest for equality. Relations became so strained that, decades after Wells had begun her work, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (which Wells had helped found) failed to accord her much credit for having launched the anti-lynching crusade.

As she tells Wells's story, Giddings spares none of the horrors of the race riots, massacres, and lynchings Wells investigated. She explores in depth other topics relevant to Wells's life, such as the rise of black journalism, the emergence of black women's reform movements and their relationship to the white-dominated woman suffrage and temperance campaigns, the political life of Chicago (where Wells spent her mature years), and the debates within the African-American community over how best to secure civil rights.

Giddings conveys so much information on these topics that at times the narrative focus on Wells gets lost. Readers anxious to get on with Wells's story may become impatient. Moreover, those hoping to learn about Wells's personal life will be disappointed. In her early 30s, Wells married Chicago attorney Ferdinand Barnett; they had four children together. In this biography these events seem just to happen, with almost no commentary on the nature of the couple's life together.

Perhaps Giddings's sources dictated her lack of focus on the personal. Among the most important of these are Wells's own autobiography, newspaper reports, and letters that Giddings found in the archives of Wells's more famous correspondents, such as Frederick Douglass. Necessarily, these sources favor the public over the personal. But Giddings did have access to some members of Wells's family. One wonders: did she leave sensitive material out deliberately? Or did she simply not find anything substantial to say?

More information about the personal might have shed more light on a topic important to Giddings but one that she never probes as deeply as she might have, and that is Wells's marginalization by her own community. Did this occur solely because of Wells's unpopular views or because of something else? Early in the book, Giddings writes that Wells "showed not only a certain social obtuseness and a look-no-further sense of right and wrong" but also "a profound lack of empathy for those who could not get out of the way when the chips, loosed by her righteous indignation, began to fall." But Giddings never systematically explores this aspect of Wells's temperament. More coverage of Wells's family relations would have helped. Despite Wells's flaws, some among her family and friends must have loved her, but since the book eclipses so much of her private life we learn more about the painful events to which she devoted her public career than we do about the woman herself. --Elisabeth Israels Perry

Elisabeth Israels Perry teaches history and women's studies at Saint Louis University and is the author of Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060519216
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/11/2008
  • Pages: 816
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Paula J. Giddings is the Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor in Afro-American Studies at Smith College and the author of When and Where I Enter and In Search of Sisterhood.

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Read an Excerpt

Ida: A Sword Among Lions
Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching

Chapter One

Holly Springs

I often compare [my mother's] work in training her children to that of other women who had not her handicaps.
Ida B. Wells

There was no need to kill here [Holly Springs], only to deprive . . . 
Hodding Carter

Ida Wells remembered being told as a child that her mother, Elizabeth, called Liza or Lizzie by friends, was born somewhere in Virginia, was one of ten children, and that her father was part Native American and her grandfather a "full-blooded" one. The only other detail she recalled about her mother's early life was that Lizzie was taken from her family when quite young and, with two of her sisters, was sold by a slave trader into Mississippi, and sold a second time before she was purchased by Spires Boling, an architect and contractor in Holly Springs. One of her mother's masters had "seared her flesh and her mind with torturous beatings," and by contrast Boling, who never used corporal punishment against her, was the "kindest" master of all. But Ida did not remember the name of the Virginia family to whom Lizzie "belonged" or the county in which she was born.1

However, circumstantial evidence suggests that Lizzie Wells was born to Annie Arrington and George Washington about 1844 on a plantation owned by William Arrington in Appomattox County, Virginia.2 Lizzie must have been sold when she was seven or eight years old, the average age in most slaveholding states when a child's market value wasgreater without her mother than with her. Compounding the crime, but softening the blow of separation, the sale also included two of her sisters—Martha, two years younger, and Isabelle or Belle, for whom Ida was named, two years older. The sale was probably handled by George D. Davis and his brother John, merchants reputed to offer the highest prices for slaves in the area, and who had had previous dealings with the extended Arrington family. The two men customarily traveled from estate to estate, picking one, two, or three slaves from each homestead until they gathered a hundred or more to sell on the market.3

The Davis brothers purchased most of their slaves during the summer and fall, when they could get them at lower prices and "trim, shave, wash," and "fatten" them until they looked "sleek" and could be sold at a profit. The Arringtons were closest to the Lynchburg slave mart, about twenty miles away, which was then beginning to rival Richmond and Petersburg in its volume of sales. At the height of the buying season, children who had been bought from their owners—like Lizzie, Martha, and Belle—could be seen traveling two by two, their wrists bound by a rope, their pace hastened by an enforcer's whip.4

When such children reached Lynchburg, they were taken to a brick building on First and Lynch Street, where slaves were secured before they were sold. The prepubescence of young girls saved them from being intimately scrutinized by potential buyers who routinely examined buttocks and considered breasts. The health of children, by contrast, was determined by making them run in circles, or jump up and down, or skip along in measured distances.5

By October of 1858, Lizzie, about thirteen or fourteen, was among the nine slaves owned by Spires Boling; her sisters, Belle and Martha, were settled nearby, in Marshall and DeSoto counties, respectively.6

Now a boling, Lizzie's primary responsibility was cooking for the middle-aged contractor; his pregnant wife, Nancy; and the household, which consisted of an older female relative and seven children between the ages of one and eighteen.7 Lizzie's development into an excellent cook and the nonviolent treatment at the hands of her owner were not atypical of the fourteen hundred slaves in Holly Springs. Although there were laws that prohibited blacks from assembling, and one published account by a minister noted the death of several women slaves by whipping, the political economy of the town demanded labor that required more skill than brawn; and it encouraged paternalism rather than violence.8

The white population of Holly Springs had begun to settle in earnest there in 1837, the year Holly Springs was incorporated and the original Chickasaw Indian inhabitants had been removed to the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). Under the mounting pressure of President Andrew Jackson's land-hungry administration, the Chickasaws signed the Treaty of Pontotoc in 1832, which extinguished their title to all of the lands east of the Mississippi, comprising the entire northern portion of the state. Of the twelve Mississippi counties jigsawed out of the territory, Marshall County, in the northwestern part of the state and named after the recently deceased Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, was the largest and the richest. In a mere twenty years, it would yield more cotton per square acre than any similar subdivision in the world. Holly Springs—named after a large, thirty-foot-wide, ten-foot-deep spring in a hollow that watered a thick grove of holly trees—became Marshall's county seat and administrative center. Soon afterward, the town was embroiled in feverish land speculation and sales and also became the site of northern Mississippi's first bank.9

As such, Holly Springs attracted "Episcopalians, Virginians and Whigs"—deserting the thinning soil and accumulating debts of the older cotton states—who brought their "ruffled shirts," "libraries," and "slaves" with them, as one historian noted.10 The bustling county seat also attracted bankers, retail merchants, land speculators, those in the building trades, and a bevy of lawyers as the town, already cleared of growth by the Chickasaws to facilitate its use as a hunting ground, grew at a dizzying pace. By 1845, the nearly thirty-five hundred residents of Holly Springs had established St. Thomas Hall, a boy's educational academy, and the six-year-old Holly Springs Collegiate Institute for young women was prepared to award Mistress of Polite Literature degrees and include subjects such as algebra, physics, and natural philosophy. "Our object is to impart a sound, substantial, liberal education," announced its president . . .

Ida: A Sword Among Lions
Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching
. Copyright (c) by Paula Giddings . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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