Ida B. Wells-Barnett Was Born Today in 1862

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Today marks the birthday of Ida B. Wells-Barnett — the educator and journalist who pioneered investigative reporting techniques still used today to uncover details of lynchings across the South. Wells-Barnett ran a newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech, and also helped found the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women.

Wells was born enslaved on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She moved to Chicago in 1894 and died there in 1931.

In its series “Overlooked,” launched last March, the New York Times ran obituaries of important figures whose deaths had previously gone unmentioned in the paper. Wells-Barnett’s was among the first wave of belated obituaries:

Wells was already a 30-year-old newspaper editor living in Memphis when she began her anti-lynching campaign, the work for which she is most famous. After [her friend, Thomas] Moss was killed, she set out on a reporting mission, crisscrossing the South over several months as she conducted eyewitness interviews and dug up records on dozens of similar cases.

Her goal was to question a stereotype that was often used to justify lynchings — that black men were rapists. Instead, she found that in two-thirds of mob murders, rape was never an accusation. And she often found evidence of what had actually been a consensual interracial relationship.

She published her findings in a series of fiery editorials in the newspaper she co-owned and edited, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. The public, it turned out, was starved for her stories and devoured them voraciously. The Journalist, a mainstream trade publication that covered the media, named her “The Princess of the Press.”

Readers of her work were drawn in by her fine-tooth reporting methods and language that, even by today’s standards, was aberrantly bold.

“There has been no word equal to it in convincing power,” Frederick Douglass wrote to her in a letter that hatched their friendship. “I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison,” he added.

He was referring to writing like the kind that she published in The Free Speech in May 1892.

Wells-Barnett’s great-granddaughter Michelle Duster is organizing and fundraising for a monument to the journalist to be built in Chicago.

Read the obituary