Study Guide

Ida B. Wells in The Man with the Muckrake

By Theodore Roosevelt

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Ida B. Wells

Even though Teddy Roosevelt asked nicely, journalist Ida B. Wells couldn't turn her eyes away from the muck.

The Civil War may have brought with it the end of slavery, but racism? That wasn't over by a long shot. (And, um, still isn't.) The newly freed African-Americans were still in the middle of a society that hated them, and once federal troops were pulled out of the South the South went right on back to trying to reestablish their status quo.

You know how the story goes. They faced legalized discrimination in the form of Jim Crow laws, and any Black person who wanted to climb the social ladder often, sadly, received a noose for their troubles. We wish we were joking. As a journalist and civil rights activist, Wells sought to expose these violent acts that were rotting in the heart of America.

Following the Family Footsteps

As the daughter of a civil rights activist herself, Wells followed the family business by attending college at Shaw University to get her education. She had a bit of a rebellious streak as well, and her fiery conviction got her into trouble when, after confronting university president Hooper, she was expelled.

Well, some experiments in rocking the boat go better than others.

Sadly, a trip to grandma's house went awry when a yellow fever epidemic swept through her hometown of Holly Springs, taking the lives of her parents along with it. She and her siblings were going to be split up and sent to different foster homes, but Ida was having none of that—she got a job as a teacher in order to provide for her siblings and keep them all under the same roof. She became a parent to her siblings at that point, all at the age of sixteen.

That definitely puts typical teenage accomplishments like "joined the track team" or "completed the Pokedex" to shame.

Working Woman

In the working world, Wells chafed under the confines that being a woman of color placed on her, and became all too aware of the barriers that her station provided her. She spent her summers taking lessons at Fisk University and began her transformation from mild-mannered teacher to civil rights activist. When she was ordered to give up her first class seat on a train to a white family, she stood her ground and sued, making it all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court before getting struck down.

From there she was offered a job at different newspapers such as the Living Way, where she wrote various articles condemning the second-class treatment Black Americans faced.

While living in Memphis, she was friends with Thomas Moss, a Black man who owned a grocery store that was competing with a white-owned store down the street. When Wells was out of town, a vigilante group stormed Moss' grocery store during the night. Moss and company held their own, but were arrested for injuring three of the assailants. Naturally, among the things being Black robbed from you was the ability to legally defend yourself from an armed mob.

While in jail, yet another mob stormed the prison and lynched Moss and two of his coworkers. When Wells came back, she was horrified—she wrote in the papers that all people of color should abandon the city of Memphis all together and:

[…] leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons. (Ida B. Wells, Free Speech and Headlight, 1892)

Tell 'em, Ida.

She made a very long and storied career speaking out against lynching, which threatened any Black citizen who dared to make something of themselves. Her work in Memphis stoked up enough Southern ire that they burned the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight to the ground in an attempt to shut her up. She moved to Chicago to help avoid further attempts, where she continued her anti-lynching campaign.

When Teddy Roosevelt urged journalists to take time away from the muck, he was speaking from a position where he could think of anything besides the muck. For Ida B. Wells, the stakes were more than just the public mood; they were the lives of her and the rest of her race.

Silence just wasn't an option.

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