To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells / Edition 1

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In the generation that followed Frederick Douglass, no African American was more prominent, or more outspoken, than Ida B. Wells. Seriously considered as a rival to W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington for race leadership, Wells' career began amidst controversy when she sued a Tennessee railroad company for ousting her from a first class car, a legal battle which launched her lifelong commitment to journalism and activism. In the 1890s, Wells focused her eloquence on the horrors of lynching, exposing it as a widespread form of racial terrorism. Backing strong words with strong actions, she lectured in the States and abroad, arranged legal representation for black prisoners, hired investigators, founded anti-lynching leagues, sought recourse from Congress, and more. Wells was an equally forceful advocate for women's rights, but parted ways with feminist allies who would subordinate racial justice to their cause. Using diary entries, letters, and published writings, McMurry illuminates Wells's fiery personality, and the uncompromising approach that sometimes lost her friendships even as it won great victories. To Keep the Waters Troubled is an unforgettable account of a remarkable woman and the and the times she helped to change.

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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
Ida B. Wells may not be as well-known today as some of her contemporaries — Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey, to name a few — but no celebration of Black History Month would be complete without noting her efforts. The courage and determination she displayed place her squarely in the vanguard of the battle for racial equality. In To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells, Linda McMurry lifts Wells back into the spotlight she occupied during her career as journalist, orator, and passionate advocate on behalf of her race.

Born into slavery in 1862, Wells spent the first part of her life in Mississippi. Her parents recognized that education was the surest path to power and prosperity after emancipation; Ida began school at a very young age, and her earliest memories were of reading the newspaper to her father and his friends. In her early teens, she attended Rust College in her hometown, Holly Springs, though her formal education ended when she was expelled for her youthful inability to control her temper.

When her parents died in 1878, Ida Wells became a teacher to support herself and her family. Although she always disliked the work, it was one of the few avenues open to respectable women of her time, and she continued to teach for many years. In 1881 she went to Memphis and assumed a place in local black society, which was at least as class-conscious as any white community. As a single woman of good family without a male relative to serve as protector, she was obliged to be especially circumspect. For a woman of Wells'srestlessintelligence and volatility, this proved to be difficult.

In 1883, Wells was denied a seat in the first-class compartment of a train, though she had bought a full-price ticket; she was expected to move quietly, as many blacks did, to the smoking car instead. Wells reacted without the restraint expected of a lady and fought the conductor physically, biting him on the hand. She sued the railroad and won, thus gaining an entree into journalism: Her account of the case launched her as a part-time newspaper writer.

As a teacher in the highly politicized world of the Memphis school system, Wells's appetite for activism grew. She found an outlet in her numerous journalistic endeavors, and gradually built a reputation as a strong, persuasive voice in the nation's black newspapers; she was eventually dubbed "the Princess of the Press," and provoked lively editorials in papers across the country. When she was fired in 1891 by the Memphis school board for criticizing the qualifications of new teachers, she relied on her writing for her livelihood.

In 1892, Wells found the cause she would spend most of her life advancing. When a friend, a prominent local businessman, was lynched by a mob in Memphis, Wells voiced her rage in print. Her interest grew as she examined other cases, and she began to agitate vehemently against the myth that black men provoked lynchings by raping white women, for she discovered that rape was not even charged in at least two-thirds of the lynchings she investigated. According to McMurry, "Wells correctly diagnosed the major purpose of lynching in the 1890s as racial terrorism." In May of 1892, she penned a stinging indictment:

"Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women."

This editorial threw Memphis into racial turmoil. Since she was out of town when the editorial was published, Wells simply did not return, fearing a "conflict which would entail great slaughter." Wells gained an even larger audience by moving to New York and taking up her cause among a more sympathetic audience, both in print and through lecture tours.

Wells continued throughout her life to agitate against lynching, cultivating such valuable allies as Frederick Douglass and serving as a leader in such endeavors as the founding of the NAACP. McMurry applauds Wells's achievements while conceding that Wells was not an easy person to work with; she seems to have alienated many who might have helped her advance her cause. By the end of Wells's career, her power had eroded, and the movement for black equality advanced without her, favoring instead the less confrontational style of Booker T. Washington. Nevertheless, Wells's fearlessness, audacity, and bold insistence on behalf of her race made her a formidable leader. To Keep the Waters Troubled profiles this fiery pioneer and reminds us of the crucial role one woman played in American black history.
Julie Robichaux is a freelance writer. She lives in New York City.

From the Publisher
"A solid study of a black woman activist confronting both racial discrimination and controversial questions of gender role."—Kirkus Reviews

"This is a fine biography, one that will reward even those readers who already know something about Wells's accomplishments. McMurry does not condescend to her subject by ignoring her flaws or romanticizing her life. Instead, by evoking the complex humanity underlying an extraordinary record of public achievement, she does genuine honor to Wells."—The New York Times Book Review

"McMurry weaves a rich account of Wells' life into a larger analysis of race and class conflict, gender roles and expectations, and crises in Black leadership at the turn of the century.... The author provides a vivid account of how this ambitious, educated Black woman led a committed life at the turn of the century. Meticulously researched and written in an accessible style, To Keep The Waters Troubled is sure to inspire a resurgence of interest in Wells' life and work."—Emerge

"No previous biography of Wells tells her life better. McMurray, who has written a biography of African-American scientist George Washington Carver, deserves an A for effort on the Wells book." —Steve Weinberg, Christian Science Monitor

"To Keep the Waters Troubled fills the immediate need to re-examine Wells-Barnett's life.... [It] marks a critical juncture in Wells-Barnett scholarship; it brings us to the disciplinary edge where biography stands ready to find its best expression as cultural history."—Jacqueline Goldsby, The Women's Review of Books

Jacqueline Goldsby
Wells-Barnett deserves...the public's acknowledgment of the constructive contributions that black radicals...have offerd in shaping the nation's history, politics and culture.
The Women's Review of Books
Jacqueline Goldsby
Wells-Barnett deserves...the public's acknowledgment of the constructive contributions that black radicals...have offerd in shaping the nation's history, politics and culture.
The Women's Review of Books
Steve Weinberg
It would be sweet justice if McMurry's biography helped carry Wells' message to the current generations who need to see the way to a color-blind, gender-blind society.
The Chirstian Science Monitor
Ellen Carol DuBois
...[O]ne of many fine localized accounts of post-bellum African-American life....a fine evoking the complex humanity underlying an extraordinary record of public achievement, [McMurry] does genuine honor to Wells.
The New York Times Book Review
Columbia Journalism Review
McMurry adds a great deal of understanding and context to the already remarkable story...
Columbia Journalism Review
Kirkus Reviews
A black woman's rise from orphanhood to activism demonstrates social politcs in America during the Reconstruction era. Wells, at age 16, was forced into an early adulthood after the death of her parents, and from that moment on she paved a road to political fulfillment, negotiated through her personal experience. McMurry (History/North Carolina State University, George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol) draws from Wells's avid journal writing - to demonstrate her youthful need to be seen as both a "lady" and an "independent" - and later from her newspaper writing, eventually her full-time career, where her own need for respect led her to an awareness of the problems of black men. As a young black woman alone during Reconstruction, Wells hurdled racial barriers only to encounter gender barriers as she supported herself as a teacher in the South, without the protection of a husband. Wells introduced herself to activism when, at barely 20, she sued a railroad company for preventing her from sitting in the first-class "ladies" car. The social confinement brought on by both race and gender, as Wells realized early, was legislated by southern states in order to impede African-American progress after slavery had ended. McMurry portrays Wells as one who, despite her understanding of injustices met by black women, identified primarily with crimes against her race, both because they raised larger questions and because she felt personally conflicted about gender roles. Finding a man who was not threatened by her independence, and who saw her as a lady, proved to be a lifelong challenge. The lynch law, which purported to protect white women from rape by black men, launched Wellsinto a career of public speaking that continued until her death.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195139273
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 12/28/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,518,626
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Linda O. McMurry is a Professor of History at North Carolina State University, and author of George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol and Recorder of the Black Experience: A Biography of Monroe Nathan Work. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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Table of Contents

1 Childhood and Early Adulthood
2 Memphis and the Railroad Suits
3 Social Activities of the Black Elite
4 Coping with Gender Roles and Spirituality
5 Moving from Teaching to Journalism
6 Editorship of the Free Speech
7 The Memphis Lynchings
8 Indictment of Lynching
9 Antilynching Lectures
10 Taking the Message to the World
11 The Continued Crusade
12 Balancing Womanhood and Activism
13 Organizational Efforts and Problems
14 Community and Interracial Activities
15 New Crusades for Justice
16 Prejudice, Protest, and Politics
17 Defending Freedom until Death
Writings about Ida B. Wells-Barnett
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