Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930

Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930

by Patricia A. Schechter


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Pioneering African American journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) is widely remembered for her courageous antilynching crusade in the 1890s; the full range of her struggles against injustice is not as well known. With this book, Patricia Schechter restores Wells-Barnett to her central, if embattled, place in the early reform movements for civil rights, women's suffrage, and Progressivism in the United States and abroad. Schechter's comprehensive treatment makes vivid the scope of Wells-Barnett's contributions and examines why the political philosophy and leadership of this extraordinary activist eventually became marginalized.

Though forced into the shadow of black male leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and misunderstood and then ignored by white women reformers such as Frances E. Willard and Jane Addams, Wells-Barnett nevertheless successfully enacted a religiously inspired, female-centered, and intensely political vision of social betterment and empowerment for African American communities throughout her adult years. By analyzing her ideas and activism in fresh sharpness and detail, Schechter exposes the promise and limits of social change by and for black women during an especially violent yet hopeful era in U.S. history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807849651
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 09/10/2001
Series: Gender and American Culture
Edition description: 1
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 802,149
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Patricia A. Schechter is assistant professor of history at Portland State University in Oregon.

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Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930

By Patricia A. Schechter

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826332


All womanhood is hampered today because the world on which it is emerging is a world that tries to worship both virgins and mothers and in the end despises motherhood and despoils virgins.
—W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater (1920)

Between 1880 and 1930, a sweeping transformation of political rights and social privileges took place in the United States. Following three decades of rapid and dramatic increases in women's access to education, wage labor, and public activism, all female citizens secured the right to full suffrage in 1919. At the same time, African American men and women endured lynching,[1] Southern disfranchisement, and Jim Crow segregation. African American women were caught in both of these whipsawing trends. Educated and urban black women took advantage of the expanded opportunities in civic life that were accruing generally to middle-class women in this period; across class lines, however, these same women faced violence and exclusion from many quarters. African American women simultaneously tapped the promise of this "Woman's Era" of female achievement and endured the nadir of U.S. race relations, trends that seemed, at first glance at the newspapers, to involve only white women and black men.

This book is about the accomplishments and frustrations of one extraordinary African American woman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931). It examines how she moved to the center of organized resistance to lynching in the 1890s and seeks to explain why her leadership waned over time. It analyzes the conflicts she experienced as a wage-earning woman, as a social critic, and as a political organizer of women and men. It explores her role in a distinctive tradition of African American women's protest activity and community building, a tradition often concealed within the discourses and practices of female reform and black politics in the United States. Finally, this book probes the irony articulated by Du Bois that femininity posed irresolvable contradictions for women in American culture.

Du Bois was on to something, but women like Wells-Barnett could not submit to these contradictions and expect to survive. Literary critic Mary Helen Washington once described turn-of-the-century black women writers as "suspended" figures, caught in the period's fierce turmoil over race, sex, and place in American life.[2] This book traces Wells-Barnett's efforts to confront and transform this turmoil and reveals a life that embodied not suspension but movement, not inhibition but "talking back."[3] In the area of gender expectations especially, Wells-Barnett's refusal either to be confined as a proper lady or to be lightly dismissed as a rebel girl claimed a wider latitude for African American women's intellectual and social engagement than was possible ever before. Claiming this freedom was both life-preserving and provocative, liberating and threatening, a source of her power and a political liability for her. People closest to Wells-Barnett sometimes voiced the sharpest criticisms or simply turned away, Du Bois among them.

We remember Du Bois primarily by his writing, but in her day Wells-Barnett was noted as much for what she said and did in public as for what she wrote down and published. She is due the reckoning of a Du Bois or a Jane Addams, but she was not only—or even primarily—a writer. Like African American women evangelicals Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, and Amanda Smith before her, Wells-Barnett was a well-known public speaker and trusted teacher in her community for quite a few years before she took to the podium to denounce lynching in the 1890s. She also kept up her work as a teacher and community organizer after the demand for her platform speeches tapered off in the 1920s. Wells-Barnett thus fits in a tradition of African American women "doers of the word"—especially God's word—who engaged the power of language spoken and written and lived as faith.[4] No simple Western calculus of meaning, like "knowledge equals power" or "beauty equals truth," could be relied upon by Wells-Barnett. Indeed, these very formulations were often used against her; as we shall see, she was repeatedly deemed to be an incompetent knower, incapable of beauty. For Wells-Barnett's generation of African American women, the meaning of life and freedom inhered not in Western abstractions but in, as historian Elsa Barkley Brown recently phrased it, "a notion of community wherein all—men, women, and children; freeborn and formerly slave; native and migrant—had inherent rights and responsibilities requiring no higher authority than their commitment to each other."[5] This book argues that Wells-Barnett's social commitments took profound inspiration from religious faith and gave rise to a "visionary pragmatism" that sustained a lifetime of agitation for social justice.

Like other strands of American pragmatism, visionary pragmatism describes not a European "school" of philosophy but rather a style of thought and activism. "Visionary" links Wells-Barnett to the prophetic traditions in African American religion documented by Cornel West and others. "Pragmatism" locates her in both the intellectual ferment of turn-of-the-century Chicago as well as in black women's legacy of "making a way out of no way" for themselves, their families, and communities forged under slavery.[6] Wells-Barnett's dual impulse to faith and politics developed in a context of Southern African American religion, a set of beliefs, institutions, and practices for salvation and community betterment that shaped and was shaped by an ongoing concern with political power and suffrage rights.[7]

Building on a heritage of resistance to slavery, the middle-class African American women of Wells-Barnett's generation sustained their intense religious and political commitments at the same time they, like educated white women, moved into teaching, journalism, social work, nursing, and civil service.[8] While it was not uncommon for intellectually driven white Protestant women in the North to struggle with or resist converting to Christianity—Jane Addams and Sophonisba Breckinridge provide salient examples—religious faith was much less problematic for Southerners and for educated African American women of all regions.[9] In Wells-Barnett's hands, visionary pragmatism entailed a distinctive view of self and service designed for personal survival and social contestation, for God and for community, and for rights and responsibilities for all U.S. citizens.

Chapter 1 establishes the contours of Wells-Barnett's visionary pragmatism by examining her autobiography Crusade for Justice. This chapter explores how she constructed her social authority in a range of public venues, focusing especially on the idea of exile. Through the metaphor of exile, Wells-Barnett crafted a writer's persona (the pen name "Exiled") and commented on black women's and black peoples' political situation in the late-nineteenth-century United States. For generations, the biblical Exodus story made theological sense of African Americans' predicament as slaves in North America. In the generation after slavery, Wells-Barnett put the idea of exile to new uses in order to forge a critique of lynching. Chapter 2 examines how this new cluster of meanings around "exile" took shape. While living in Memphis in the 1880s, Wells-Barnett found herself, as a self-supporting woman in that nascent urban Southern black community, tugged by clashing trends of female equality and gender conservatism, of new social freedom and racial proscription. These trends created social and political tensions that peaked in 1892, the height of lynching and of the populist upsurge. For Wells-Barnett, these severe social crises translated into an intense period of personal dislocation and political movement—a series of exiles and removes—which culminated in her transatlantic campaign against lynching.

Chapters 3 and 4 follow Wells-Barnett's trajectory as an "exile" from the South in a career that made her an internationally known figure. Chapter 3 examines her pioneering antilynching work, accomplished during the 1890s after she left Memphis. Her writings in this period, especially the pamphlet Southern Horrors (1892), updated the protest traditions of antebellum black agitators Maria Stewart and David Walker with a similar blend of spiritual angst, political insight, and a rousing call to armed self-defense. Although she was initially celebrated as a religious heroine—a "modern Joan of the race"—negative reactions to a black woman moving so out of her "place" soon precipitated a shift in gender expectations for African American women in organized reform. By 1900, the space for black women in national leadership had shrunk, and Wells-Barnett's vision of a broad-based social movement to end lynching failed to materialize. Chapter 4 continues the story of antilynching reform, tracing the pressures that further transformed the movement. By 1910, the heroic, biblical model of black womanhood in leadership became marginalized. By then, theoretically anyone with the "facts"—but especially men with college degrees working in the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—could make a compelling case to be heard as an expert on lynching. Wells-Barnett found herself and her vision of agitation out of favor among the NAACP's professional reformers who led the fight against lynching in the World War I era.

Chapter 5 steps back in time to situate Wells-Barnett in her adopted home of Chicago, Illinois, where she settled in 1895 and ended her exiles. There, she married and had four children and engaged in innovative efforts to deliver social justice and social services to a growing African American population on the city's South Side. Most notable among her many undertakings in Chicago was the creation of the Negro Fellowship League (NFL), a social settlement she established in 1910. The League grew directly out of Wells-Barnett's Sunday school teaching and represents a vivid example of southern black women's community-building strategies transplanted to a northern urban context. Several distinct variables shaped the work of the League. First was a mission statement that clearly focused on boys and men in a period in which "woman's work for woman" (and children) was the keynote of most female activism. Second, electoral politics figured prominently in the life of the settlement, much more so either than in the South, where disfranchisement was the rule, or among reforming white women in the North, who edged more gradually into partisan life after 1900. Wells-Barnett's need for funds motivated her to join electoral politics in the hopes of securing support for her settlement. All of her plans for community improvement had female equality at heart, as demonstrated by her active and steadfast support of suffrage rights and voting power for black women throughout her Chicago years.

Two pillars of Wells-Barnett's work in reform—a faith-centered focus on community that affirmed women's equality and the constant struggle for resources, which pointed her to party politics—frame this study's final chapter on the 1920s. As historians Glenda Gilmore and Laura Edwards have demonstrated for the South, citizenship rights created new opportunities for social influence among black women by making them clients of the state. In Chicago, African American women claimed a place of their own in public life as agents of the state, as shapers rather than recipients of political power, and not just as voters but as party activists and candidates for elective and appointive office. The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and a reenergized women's club movement underwrote Wells-Barnett's own ambition for elected office in 1930. Though she lost her bid, few in black Chicago would have denied that Ida B. Wells-Barnett had been a vitally important figure in the life of the community, state, and nation for two generations.


1. Lynching refers to the extralegal murder of individuals and groups of people by a mob of two or more persons. In the United States, lynching was primarily a means to "intimidate, degrade, and control black people throughout the southern and border states from Reconstruction to the mid-twentieth century." Between 1882 and 1930, 4,561 people lost their lives through lynchings, 74 percent of whom were black. Zangrando, NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 3, 6-7.

2. M. H. Washington, "Teaching Black-Eyed Susans," 212-13.

3. hooks, Talking Back, 5-9; Henderson, "Speaking in Tongues"; Painter, "Representing Truth"; Tate, Domestic Allegories, 124-49.

4. Peterson, "Doers of the Word", 3-23.

5. E. B. Brown, "To Catch the Vision of Freedom," 86.

6. James and Busia, Theorizing Black Feminisms, especially the introduction; Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 1-67, 251-71; Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography, 15-79; Lee, For Freedom's Sake, 1-22; D. G. White, Ar'n't I a Woman; West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 211-39; and West, Prophetic Fragments, 45-46. See also W. James, Pragmatism and Other Essays, 5-132; Kloppenberg, "Pragmatism"; Diggins, Promise of Pragmatism, 108-57; Seigfried, Pragmatism and Feminism, 174-201.

7. See D. S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness; and Townes, Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope.

8. Shaw, What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do; Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent; E. B. Brown, "Womanist Consciousness"; Moldow, Women Doctors in Gilded Age Washington; Wolcott, Bible, Bath and Broom; Hine, Black Women in White.

9. On black women in the South, see Rouse, Lugenia Burns Hope; Neverdon-Morton, Afro-American Women of the South; and Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow. On black women in the North, see Weisenfeld, African American Women and Christian Activism; and Knupfer, Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood. For a general overview, see Salem, To Better Our World. Works focused specifically on racial politics in reform include Lasch-Quinn, Black Neighbors; and L. Gordon, "Black and White Visions of Welfare." Treatments reflecting the secular and mostly white-dominated aspects of reform include M. Carson, Settlement Folk; Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform; and Sklar, Hull-House in the 1890s. The following works analyze racism and attempt to integrate black women into their interpretations: Goodwin, Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform; L. Gordon, Women, the State, and Welfare; Frankel and Dye, Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era; A. F. Scott, Natural Allies; and Turner, Women, Culture, and Community. See also essays in Kerber, Kessler-Harris, and Sklar, U.S. History as Women's History; Hewitt and Lebsock, Visible Women; Koven and Michel, Mothers of a New World; and Mjagkij and Spratt, Men and Women Adrift.

Excerpted from Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 by Patricia A. Schechter. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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From the Publisher

[This] is an ambitious interpretive study of Wells-Barnett's career as a reformer. It makes a persuasive case for her importance, even central importance, over a fifty-year period. . . . Schechter has broken new ground here.—Barbara Sicherman, Trinity College

Through stunning readings of Wells-Barnett's autobiography . . . and meticulous social history, Schechter not only has produced the best and most serious analysis of this protean figure but also has enriched our understanding of the politics of the body.—Journal of American History

Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 is more than a simple biography. It is a multilayered expose of a society molded by racism, a people saddled with sexism, and one woman's public and private struggle with both.—Deborah Gray White, author of Too Heavy a Load: African American Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994

Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 manages to get behind the African American woman's legendary veil of dissemblance to reveal the struggles of a pioneer who was as often at odds with herself as she was with the whites and men who structured her world.—Deborah Gray White, author of Too Heavy a Load: African American Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994

A challenging account of Ida B. Wells-Barnett that emphasizes her role in social reform and race relations. This historical biography of Wells-Barnett's accomplishments and frustrations provides new perspectives on the 'age of reform' in the United States, and it does so without romanticizing the era.—Journal of Southern History

The research Patricia Schechter exhibits in this book—academically first-rate, readable nonetheless for nonacademic audiences—has no business going unread, unrecognized. Her book is henceforth a benchmark in Wells studies.—Memphis

A provocative study that goes far beyond Wells-Barnett as a leader in the anti-lynching movement. . . . Schechter emphasizes the importance of religious faith and religious institutions in all aspects of Wells-Barnett's career. . . . Perhaps the most interesting part of this fascinating book is Schechter's careful analysis and deconstruction of Wells-Barnett's autobiography, unfinished and unpublished during her lifetime.—American Historical Review

So profound and insightful are Schechter's analyses of the interwoven dynamics of race and gender both in Wells-Barnett's innovative critiques of lynching and in underlying gender assumptions about African American leadership that I would assess her work on Wells-Barnett as definitive. . . . The depth of insight and sensitivity of her analyses of black leadership and gender politics are unsurpassed.—Kevin K. Gaines, University of Michigan

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