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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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
Ida: A Sword Among Lions
Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching
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 . . .
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 achild's market value was greater 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 © by Paula Giddings. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
“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.”
“History at its best—clear, intelligent, moving. Paula Giddings has written a book as priceless as its subject.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ida B. Wells, at least until the publication of this book, was something of a footnote in history, her role in anti-lynching campaigns played down by those who came after her.Gidding's book restores Wells reputation, in great detail. Actually the book was hard for me to get through. It is long and heavy, not good with my minor carpal tunnel. But I decided to finish the book and am glad that I did.Wells was born a slave in 1862. Her parents were skilled though, and made an easier transition to freedom than many others. Unfortunately they died young, and Wells and her siblings were forced to survive on their own. Wells lived in Memphis and was a teacher. Black civil rights, gained afer the Civil War, began to be eroded pretty quickly. Wells first came to public attention with an anti-lynching article in 1892, against the lynching of three men, one of whom was a friend of hers. Her anti-lynching campaign helped propel her into journalism, but she was forced into exile from Memphis in fear of her life. She traveled a lot, eventually winding up in Chicago, where she married a lawyer named Ferdinand Barnett and had four children with him. She never stopped working for civil rights for African-Americans and women, and for improving conditions for blacks. In her anti-lynching campaigns, she investigated incidents in detail, and published the results in pamphlets, while also writing articles refuting that the cause of most lynchings was black male rape of white women.Wells could be a contentious personality, and it cost her over her life. But what also cost her was just the unwillingness of many to hear the cold hard facts she wanted revealed. She was farther to the left politically than most, insisting on civil rights when it was far more popular to follow Booker T. Washington in saying that black vocational education was more important than rights, that it would improve the economic conditions and raise the status of the race. Wells knew that, for one thing, it wasn't a lot of use to educate blacks for jobs that they wouldn't be hired for because of their skin color. Giddings gets into some sickening detail in eiscussing lynchings, but these are the facts. The events were brutal... not just death, but torture before death. Reading these horrors don't make one proud of being white. Even progressive whites were often unable to understand the degree of their racial prejudice. Ida made them uncomfortable because she would tell that they were wrong and why.So all in all, this is a story that shows the worst of humanity, prejudice so strong it destroyed lives in so many ways, but also of those who had the courage to speak up, and to never give up, despite every possible discouragement. It reinforces what I've thought for a long while, that society advances by evolutionary change rather than revolutionary. Revolutions tend to provoke reaction that sends things back to where they were or worse. Yet society needs the revolutionary voices to raise consciousness and introduce new progressive ideas. Ida B. Wells was one of those voices.Ida: A Sword Among Lions is a book that in the end rewards the effort of reading it.