Remembering Ida B. Wells

As a young journalist, I am drawn to the intricate process of journalism defined by gathering information and using it to write articles that expose the truth. In the United States, there is one journalist whose investigative abilities and powerful writing is unmatched, Ida B. Wells. 

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was a Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist and investigative journalist who co-owned the newspaper Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and published works for several newspapers in America along with some newspapers around the world. 

She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Association of Colored Women. Her most prominent works are “Southern Horrors” and “The Red Record,” in which she exposes the racist violence and lynchings of African American people in the South.

Ida B. Wells’s journalistic techniques built the foundation for many principles of investigative journalism today. She traveled through the South gathering evidence, conducting interviews, and uncovering records that proved the wrongful lynchings of African Americans. She started her investigative operation through the South after hearing the news of the murder of her good friend Thomas Moss. 

Moss was a co-owner of the People’s Grocery Company in Memphis, an African American-owned grocery store located across the street from a white-owned grocery store. The People’s Grocery Company was an instant success, but many white people in Memphis saw their success as a threat, so they planned an attack and covered it up with the excuse that they were looking for places that may be harboring criminals. 

The owners of the People’s Grocery Company were prepared to protect themselves when the store was raided, they wounded 3 people with gunshots to protect themselves. Because there were some law enforcement officers in this mob, a hundred African American men were arrested after that attack on the pretense that they were firing at law enforcement officers. Moss and two of his co-workers were dragged out of jail and murdered by a group of 75 masked people. 

Photo via Ida B. Wells’ Determined Quest for Equality

Ida B. Wells discovered the lengths at which white southerners would go to kill successful African Americans –by making false accusations and charging them of crimes they had not committed. Learning about the truth of Moss’s death, she set out to investigate more lynchings throughout the South. She interviewed the people of the communities she visited and deep-dived into records to find the true reasons for several of these lynchings. 

She kept a detailed record of every interview and piece of information she found and wrote thorough articles including names, dates, and the full stories of the victims. Wells writes that these lynchings were “an excuse to get rid of [African Americans] who were acquiring wealth and property.” 

Wells urged African American people to move out of Memphis knowing the negative impact of their departure on the companies and the economy of Memphis. Along with this, Wells supported and organized many economic boycotts against companies that discriminated against African Americans.  

If it wasn’t for Wells’s investigative reporting, all of America would still believe the cover-up lies that these people were killed for other crimes. As Megan Ming Francis explains in her article Ida B. Wells and the Economics of Racial Violence: “Wells, through her investigations, told another story: lynching was used to maintain the total—economic, educational, social—subordination of African Americans. The resulting conclusion was not hard to draw that, if lynching was not a response to African American criminality but instead a tool to maintain white economic power, then it was unjust.” 

Wells writes in the preface of Southern Horrors, “The Afro-American is not a bestial race. If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service.”

Ida B. Wells received hostility and opposition from many people– being a former slave and a woman who wasn’t afraid to be bold and dig deeper into the causes of racist violence and lynchings in America– and yet, she charged through the prejudice and violence that was presented against her and set the bar for investigative journalism.

Ida B. Wells raised awareness of the lynchings of African American people by naming victims, telling their stories, and exposing the truth about the racist violence in the South– and that the violence was motivated by the effort to bring African American success in economics to a halt, and covered up by lies and false accusations. Her work exemplifies the power of investigative journalism and inspires many to dig deep into what they believe in and spread the truth through their writing.