Regennia N Williams, PhD
Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture
At the start of the “Roaring 20s,” Ida B. Wells was a journalist, educator, author, suffragist, clubwoman, social reformer, leader in the anti-lynching movement, and a wife and mother. A native of Mississippi, she was born in slavery in 1862. By the time of her death in Chicago, Illinois in 1931, she had achieved a fame that was rare for any woman, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, and nationality. In her lifetime, she would claim friends, allies, rivals, and enemies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and across the color and class lines that frequently divided blacks and whites in America, including those in Cleveland, Ohio.
Wells’ biographer Paula Giddings described her as one of the most uncompromising leaders of her time. In ‘Ida: A Sword Among Lions’, Giddings recounts the story of Wells’ work with and, sometimes, disagreements with such leaders as suffragist and diplomat Frederick Douglass, historian and fellow founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) W. E. B. Du Bois, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, & Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU).
Articles in the black press and other publications suggest that Wells, despite her many disputes with some well known leaders, also found trusted allies in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and among mainline black churches across the country, including Cleveland’s St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is interesting to note that some poor and working class African Americans found the “uplifting” messages of NACW members and other “respectable” reformers somewhat off-putting, since they reflected certain class and cultural biases regarding alcohol consumption, church decorum, and clothing etiquette.
Tragically, despite the best efforts of Ida B. Wells and other African American suffragists, within a decade of the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, thousands of black women in the South would join the ranks of the politically disenfranchised, just as black men had done so in the decades following the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment. African Americans’ ongoing desire to secure and exercise voting rights would, however, help to fuel the Modern Civil Rights Movement after World War II.