Biography Examines Life of Ida B. Wells
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.
It is time for a special Wisdom Watch. We look at the life of Ida B. Wells. Born into slavery, she became a civil rights pioneer, a crusading journalist who documented atrocities against blacks at great personal risk. She was also a co-founder of the NAACP and one of the most powerful voices of the first anti-lynching campaign in America. Forty years before Rosa Parks, she sued the railroads over segregated accommodations, and she was a wife and mother. Ida Wells is the subject of a new biography, "Ida: A Sword Among Lions" by scholar Paula Giddings, who was kind enough to join us in our Washington Studio. Welcome, and thank you so much for coming.
Ms. PAULA GIDDINGS (Author, "Ida: A Sword Among Lions"): Hi Michel.
MARTIN: Many know your name from your seminal work, "Where and When I Enter." That was a pioneering work about black women and activism. Is that how you made the acquaintance of Ms. Ida B. Wells?
Ms. GIDDINGS: She kind of walked into my life while I was doing the research of "When and Where I Enter." Of course, I had heard about her before, but I hadn't really engaged in her and it wasn't long - I write this in the introduction in the book before she demanded a book of her own.
MARTIN: Why? Why did she demand a - and it is some book - it is 800 pages, so she was a demanding person.
Ms. GIDDINGS: Because her story is so central to - not only race in this country, but also to the culture, the entire culture to the country and its relationship to race. Her genius was to be able to see something and draw new conclusions about it, such as lynching and so, her life, as you know, goes from the Civil War all the way to 1931, through the most tumultuous and important periods of history and she shapes, and is shaped by them.
MARTIN: She came from a remarkable family. I mentioned that she was born into slavery. Her parents managed to become quite accomplished.
Ms. GIDDINGS: Absolutely. And this is a story we don't hear very often about slaves who - her father was a skilled carpenter and was an apprentice, in fact, to the leading carpenter and architect in Holly Springs, and her mother became a famous cook. And so they made remarkable transitions as freed persons. He eventually had a business of his own and was quite successful.
MARTIN: But tragedy struck early in her life, they died of the yellow fever epidemic that just kind of ravished their community. That must put a terrible burden on her.
Ms. GIDDINGS: This was though, quite tragic, for Ida because both of her parents died within 24 hours of one another in 1878. She was 16 years old. The oldest in the family, had to take care of five younger siblings.
MARTIN: This is interesting to me because she did a number of really remarkable things. She refused to have her family split up, the siblings split up. She insisted on getting certified as a teacher the age of 16 so that she could keep all the siblings together.
Ms. GIDDINGS: Yes.
MARTIN: The reason that I am intrigued by this is, is that one could forgive her if she just decided to go have a quiet life...
Ms. GIDDINGS: That is right.
MARTIN: Just, you know, just take care of herself, just stick to the home and do her thing. But she didn't and I'd like to ask you, how she developed this sense of righteous indignation. How she became this activist at a time when it was very unusual for women of any race...
Ms. GIDDINGS: Right.
MARTIN: To have a life outside the home.
Ms. GIDDINGS: That's right, and she was a Victorian. The psychological idea that I came across that did seem to fit her best, was that after the death of her parents, you know, Wells prays over her anger. She is very self conscious. This is another interesting thing about her, but she worked so hard to turn that anger in to something that is positive, and she does have a sense of injustice, social injustice, that stays with her, but I think the combination of the history that is going on, of her life experiences and of her own persona, creates this incredible courageous being.
MARTIN: You talk about - and as I said, there is just no way that we can possibly get into the kind of richness of this narrative here, but she did something that was very difficult to do, which is that she started writing about the lynchings that had become epidemic in this period and the kind of, the narrative that people were used to seeing, by the mainstream white papers - it has to be said that this burly brute attacked a woman and received his just deserve from a mob who were only doing the right thing. How did she develop her sense of outrage about this and how did she go about reporting on these issues...
Ms. GIDDINGS: That is right.
MARTIN: When people were terrified to talk?
Ms. GIDDINGS: That's right. Three of her friends, and particularly one very good friend of hers, Thomas Moss (ph), she's actually the godmother of his child, is lynched in Memphis in 1892. This really is the clincher for her. And she understands that what people are saying about black people is untrue. And that she also begins to see that's the failure of the society to come to terms with its own moral aspirations and projecting this on blacks as evil.
MARTIN: What do you mean by this? What did she do that was so remarkable about this?
Ms. GIDDINGS: She understood why blacks were being lynched, at a time when not even all blacks understood it. There was a worry that maybe blacks, because there were so many poor blacks going into the cities, et cetera, that they were raping white women as was being charged, or at least being criminal. Ida understood that black people were being criminalized. That this was an excuse to cover the failures, other failures, in the society, and of also economic competition.
MARTIN: How did you figure that out?
Ms. GIDDINGS: What's interesting is, of course, she's one of the first investigative reporters. She goes to the scenes of lynchings to find out about them. She also uses, Michel, the new methodologies of the social sciences, and also ways in which to present the truth to people.
MARTIN: She found out, for example, let's talk about the case of Eliza Woods (ph).
Ms. GIDDINGS: Eliza Woods was a black woman who was accused of poisoning her mistress - the women who she worked for, a white woman. Woods was accused of this, was lynched, was stripped naked and her body was shot in two. Wells is upset not only because of the lynching...
MARTIN: And not just that - this was a public spectacle. It was estimated that maybe a thousand people witnessed this.
Ms. GIDDINGS: It was a public spectacle in a public square. Exactly, exactly. Part of the humiliation and the shame of it. And Wells is angry not only because of the horror of the lynching itself, but because no one is protecting this woman, including African-Americans. Two years later, the husband of the white woman who was killed, he actually confesses to the crime of killing his own wife for which Eliza Woods was lynched. I talk about this in the book - of Wells when she hears this particularly, it really begins to - and she also understands that lynching is not about men and rape. It's also about black women are being lynched as well, and this is important because this is one of the ways she disproves that lynching is always a consequence of rape. She said, but why are you lynching black women? So this can't be true, there's something else going on. And this is what she dedicates her life to talking about.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with scholar Paula Giddings about her new biography of Ida B. Wells, "Ida: A Sword among Lions." Why did she have to flee Memphis? This is a famous story that I think people know the bare outlines of. That her printing presses - she came to run a newspaper, were burned, and she was warned not to come back to the city under threat of her life. Why?
Ms. GIDDINGS: She's - by the way, the first black woman to co-own a major newspaper in a major city. And she writes about lynching after her friends were lynched in 1892 - she begins anti-lynching editorials. Not only anti-lynching editorials, but also editorials which have resulted in thousands of people leaving Memphis. Wells called for blacks to leave a city that would not protect them, and about 20 percent of the population left which was an economic problem for Memphis. And with all the tumult she's creating, and her anti-lynching editorial which also implies that rape is not really the motive, and that there's consensual relationships going on between white women and black men, she writes an editorial about this, a very short one. Leaves for Philadelphia for AME Conference, and discovers before she comes home that she cannot return to Memphis.
That a mob has razed her office, that her co-partner has been run out of town, and that she herself is threatened lynching if she comes back, and she decides not to come back. She, you know, doesn't really care so much about that, but what she is afraid of as she reads the telegraphs coming to her is that there's going to be a race war if she returns because black men have also vowed to protect her if she does return. And so she says, you know, this is not worth it. From New York then, she will write her famous editorial, "The Truth about Lynching," the first study of lynching, which will be published in the New York Age.
MARTIN: How was her work received by her peers? Not just, you know, the civil rights leadership of the time who were often men, but also by women, the suffragist movement, which was largely led by white women. How is she viewed in that circle?
Ms. GIDDINGS: Yes, well it's mixed. Many of the values she brings around - understanding race and lynching, she brings to other progressive movements such as suffrage. Sometimes there's support, but the story of white feminists and black feminists is a difficult one because white women were afraid that if black women were enfranchised, southern legislators would never pass a federal amendment.
MARTIN: One of the curious things you point out is that she doesn't appear in some of the early accounts of the civil rights movement, despite her incredible prominence and the work that she did documenting these atrocities and her work as an organizer. Why is that? And I'm tempted to ask is it because she was hard to get along with? Kind of a pill?
Ms. GIDDINGS: This is part of it, but this is not the most important part of it. She is a very difficult personality. She will criticize people in public, including W.E.B. DuBois and others. She will embarrass people in public if she feels they are compromising. No one escaped Ida's wrath completely, but this is not the main reason. The main reason is really ideological. She is so ahead of her time and she has a very different idea about race and a much more militant one and much more radical one than the NAACP or any of its leaders. She has also certainly a much more radical idea about gender. She just felt entitled to do as much as her experience said she was able to do and many disagreed.
MARTIN: And what was her radical idea about race?
Ms. GIDDINGS: Well, while most people were calling for, oh let's have quiet negotiations among the elite of both races to solve the race problem, she said you know the south owes rehabilitation to black labor, and all we have to do with civil disobedience is refuse. So she was looking for an insurgency of the laboring classes, and believed in a grass roots kind of leadership where others...
MARTIN: Not violent though.
Ms. GIDDINGS: Not violent, except she did believe in self defense. She has a very famous line, a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Afro-American home.
MARTIN: Well, all righty then, you can see why that was controversial. Paula, we just have a couple of minutes left.
Ms. GIDDINGS: OK.
MARTIN: I mentioned that Ida B. Wells became Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She married, she had children, and I mention that because we so often see these activist women as flying solo...
Ms. GIDDINGS: That's right.
MARTIN: As giving all for the cause.
Ms. GIDDINGS: That's right.
MARTIN: She did have that other side of her life, but it was not easy.
Ms. GIDDINGS: It was not easy. Four children between 1896 and 1904. She has her last child when she's 42-years-old, and her husband 52.
MARTIN: Very contemporary.
Ms. GIDDINGS: Very contemporary.
MARTIN: And also traveled on her speaking engagements with a nurse and often a baby in tow.
Ms. GIDDINGS: And a baby.
MARTIN: Very modern.
Ms. GIDDINGS: And you know she said I'm sure I'm the only women giving political speeches with a nursing baby in tow, because she believed in nursing. She believed in being with her children. But instead of staying home, she would drag, sometimes I think actually drag these children, even to the sites of lynchings and to other activist organizations and meetings that she was going to.
MARTIN: In researching this biography, is there something that surprised you that just knocked your socks off?
Ms. GIDDINGS: The depth of the violence and the irrationality of it and trying to understand what is so deep into the soul of this country that had to be reformed. But not only that, that was one aspect. The other aspect was the fact that Wells never lost faith in the ability of the country to reform. She's one of the few that never becomes bitter. She's angry a lot, but she's not bitter. She's not disillusioned. She never loses hope, and this gives her another kind of energy always. So it's both of those things. It's the depth of the violence, and it's also the ability for someone to look at it squarely in the face and say no, but this can change. You know we can do something. We can reform the country. We're all kind of an interesting moment like that now, and I hope that her hopes will be realized.
MARTIN: Paula Giddings is the Elizabeth Woodson professor at Smith College. She is the author of "Ida: A Sword among Lions." Just in time for women's history month, the book is available at most major bookstores, and Paula Giddings joined us here in our Washington studio. Thank you so much.
Ms. GIDDINGS: Thank you so much, Michel. I loved it.