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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.