The Words of Ida B. Wells

“The way to Right Wrongs is to Turn the Light of Truth Upon Them.”

Sometimes we do things because they’re totally routine. Sometimes, we learn something completely new about a routine thing we’ve done for years.

As I surfed the annuls of the world-wide web for information on today’s Ambassador, I discovered something new about African-American History Month, an event that I had celebrated in school every year since kindergarten – did you know that every year, African-American History Month has a theme?

That’s right. Every year there is a new focus when the month of February rolls around, a new theme to explore within the rich, cultural history of African-Americans. The 2016 Theme? – Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memories.

But what’s the history of this history month?

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Carter G. Woodson

I’ll give it to you short and sweet – Carter G. Woodson, scholar, is known as the ‘father of Black History.’ He created Negro History Week in 1926, “with the conviction that one day it would be unnecessary––that the contributions of African-Americans would truly be seen as an integral part of the story of American history.” (African-American Humanism)

While it remained a week-long celebration for 50 years, in 1976, President Carter finally extended African-American History to the month-long commemoration of African-American achievements that we see throughout February.

So Why Is African-American History Month So Important?

Humility: modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.

A college sophomore has none of these things. While attending NYU, I decided to knock out one of my history requirements with an elective titled ‘African American History: 1865-Present.’ As a self-proclaimed history buff/nerd/aficionado, I figured it would be a cake-walk, since I basically knew almost everything there was to know about history EVER (at 19, having lived in only one place until that very moment…are you picking up on the sarcasm here?)

My class, originally scheduled to take place in a fancy old NYU Washing Square Park building, was instead held on the second floor of a rickety church on the park due to a strike by the graduate students. My teacher refused to cross the picket line, so we had to walk just a couple of blocks further and a couple of staircases higher to get to our class, all before 9am (9:01? the door was already locked).

CHgcF0RWoAArXjkTwice a week I sat through that class, and twice a week I learned about someone, something, or some place new My naive little mind soon realized that we, like Jon Snow, knew absolutely nothing. I was introduced to a thread of history that ran side-by-side with the American history with which I felt so familiar. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a name I knew but never knew. I tore through Asata: An Autobiography, a story I never knew. Our teacher made us watch The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 so charged with racial stereotypes and fear mongering that I felt physically uncomfortable sitting in an NYU theater, watching it on the big screen.

And then, I met Ida B. Wells.

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Rosa Parks’ Mugshot
Ida & Fam
Ida & Fam

Born in 1862, Ida B. Wells was technically a slave for six months – until the Emancipation Proclamation happened. When her scholarly father and her mother suddenly died of yellow fever, Wells took over her family, and soon moved to Tennessee. It was on a train from Memphis to Nashville that Ida B. Wells the activist was born. Even though Ida had a first class ticket, she was told to sit in the segregated train cars. After being forcibly removed from the train (she bit someone!), Ida quickly filed a law suit and won! They settled for $500 (OMG! Now that I’m a legal assistant, I actually understand what all of that means!), but the suit was then overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Basically, Ida B. Wells is kiiiind of the original Rosa Parks.

“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

Wells was so appalled by her situation, and the situation of her fellow African-Americans, that she began writing about their struggles. She published using the name “Lola” in black newspapers and periodicals about the condition of African-Americans in the south.

 At the same time, she was also a school teacher in Tennessee. where she witnessed firsthand just how unequal “separate but equal” really was. She complained, loudly, about the conditions of black schools, and in 1891, her words got her fired. At this point, Ida dove into journalism full-time, and turned her sharp attention to a bloody, violent piece of American history that plagued our country following Reconstruction, and even up until the turn of the century.

“Although lynchings have steadily increased in number and barbarity during the last twenty years, there has been no single effort put forth by the many moral and philanthropic forces of the country to put a stop to this wholesale slaughter.”

1000509261001_2105758631001_vs-50fad7a1e4b0a73360f592f5-1471890474001In 1892, three African-American grocery store owners (Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart) in Memphis were protecting their shop from some vandals who happened to be white, and shots were fired. Even thought the three men had been charged and arrested, they were dragged out of their jail cells and lynched by a mob. My African-American history class slapped me in the face with the brutal truth of lynching. While I knew that this kind of mob-rule existed once in the past, I never knew how horrific, advertised, and shockingly common-place it was only a little over 100 years ago.

The numbers of lynchings listed in each source varies slightly. The NAACP lynching statistics tend to be slightly higher than the Tuskegee Institute figures, which some historians consider “conservative.” For example, in 1914, Tuskegee Institute reported fifty-two lynchings for the year, the Chicago Tribune reported fifty-four, and The Crisis, the official organ of the NAACP,gave the number as seventy-four.2 The reason for the discrepancies in these figures is due in part to different conceptions of what actually constituted a lynching, and errors in the figures. According to the Tuskegee Institute figures, between the years 1882 and 1951, 4,730 people were lynched in the United States: 3,437 Negro and 1,293 white.3The largest number of lynchings occurred in 1892. Of the 230 persons lynched that year, 161 were Negroes and sixty-nine whites. (Yale.edu)

Wells spent two months traveling the south, gathering stories for a report of lynching. In 1893, she published A Red Record, her personal examination of lynching in America.

Ida B. Wells spent most of her life trying to create legislature against lynching. She had a hand in founding NAACP (she left because they were not “action oriented enough” for her restless self). And she didn’t stop there:

Working on behalf of all women, Wells, as part of her work with the National Equal Rights League, called for President Woodrow Wilson to put an end to discriminatory hiring practices for government jobs. She created the first African-American kindergarten in her community and fought for women’s suffrage. In 1930, Wells made an unsuccessful bid for the state senate. (Biography.com)


On behalf of history, I implore you, Everyday Ambassadors, to see African-American History Month in a new light. Just because we can count on it happening every year doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn. Until the day where African-American History is blended seamlessly into what it truly is, American History, we have to train ourselves to see the stories behind what’s presented in our typical text books. People like Ida B. Wells directly shaped the course of Civil Rights, and I never knew who she was until my sophomore year in college.

For her fierce strength that was ahead of its time and her courage to lend her voice and pen to the voiceless, Ida B. Wells is our Ambassador of the Week.

“One had better Die Fighting against Injustice than Die like a Dog or a Rat in a Trap.” 

P.S.: All quotes by the great Ida herself.
P.P.S.: Biography.com offers some great bio videos! Check them out here!

Every Monday, Communications Director Victoria Freyre brings you Ambassador of the Week, the stories of those people living the Everyday Ambassador core values. To nominate your own AoW, check out #AmbassadoroftheWeek & #AoW on our social media platforms and send us your submission. 

 

 

 

 



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