Cover image for Ida : a sword among lions : Ida B. Wells and the campaign against lynching
Ida : a sword among lions : Ida B. Wells and the campaign against lynching
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Amistad, c2008.
Physical Description:
xii, 800 p., [16] p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm.
Traces the life and legacy of the nineteenth-century activist and pioneer, documenting her birth into slavery, her career as a journalist and a pioneer for civil rights and suffrage, and her determination to counter lynching.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 921 WELLS 1 1

On Order



Pulitzer Prize Board citation to Ida B. Wells, as an early pioneer of investigative journalism and civil rights icon

From a thinker who Maya Angelou has praised for shining "a brilliant light on the lives of women left in the shadow of history," comes the definitive biography of Ida B. Wells--crusading journalist and pioneer in the fight for women's suffrage and against segregation and lynchings

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery and raised in the Victorian age yet emerged--through her fierce political battles and progressive thinking--as the first "modern" black women in the nation's history.

Wells began her activist career when she tried to segregate a first-class railway car in Memphis. After being thrown bodily off the car, she wrote about the incident for black Baptist newspapers, thus beginning her career as a journalist. But her most abiding fight would be the one against lynching, a crime in which she saw all the themes she held most dear coalesce: sexuality, race, and the law.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* An iconic figure in American history, Wells was not always celebrated by her contemporaries for her groundbreaking activism because of her assertive politics and difficult personality. She is best known for her crusade against lynching documenting the injustice often tied to false accusations of black men sexually assaulting white women. Wells understood and chronicled the connection between racism and sexuality as blacks and women asserted themselves in American culture. Giddings offers a look at how Wells' own self-assertion affected her relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and the broader American public as she evolved as a woman and an activist. Wells, born to slaves in Mississippi, was at the forefront of progressivism in advocacy journalism, feminism, and racial justice from her longtime base in Memphis. Exiled from the South in 1892, she launched her antilynching campaign worldwide before marrying and settling in Chicago, where she threw herself into local politics. With meticulous research, including Wells' own diary, Giddings brings to life one of the most fascinating women in American history, giving readers a real feel for the texture and context of Wells' life.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2008 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

Ida Wells-Barnett led the fight against lynching. IF slavery is America's original sin, lynching is its capital crime. The historical memory dies hard: only last year, three nooses were hung from a schoolyard tree contested by white and black students in Jena, La. The wave of mob killings of blacks in the South - by hanging, burning, shooting and torture - started after the end of Reconstruction. These public murders were carried out with the real purpose of keeping blacks in their place, economically and socially. The practice was supported by leading citizens and became a popular public spectacle, a carnival of cruelty that drew excited crowds. According to "Rope and Faggot," the 1928 study by the N.A.A.C.P. general secretary Walter White, between 1882 and 1927 there were 4,951 lynchings in the United States. About a third of them were aimed at whites, mainly in the West; 92 of the victims were women. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was one of the first African-Americans to raise an informed protest against this outrage. Paula Giddings's devoted and scrupulous biography is not the first study of this pioneering woman, but it is a comprehensive work that attempts to portray her as part of the progressive movement that emerged among the black bourgeoisie in post-bellum America. Wells-Barnett dedicated her life to bringing lynchings to the attention of America and the world. Determined, outspoken and fearless, an incendiary pamphleteer, she was politically astute, anticipating the tactics of the civil rights movement. Giddings, a professor of African-American studies at Smith College and author of "Where and When I Enter," a history of black women activists, brushes in the historical context of Wells-Barnett's campaign ably, if in occasionally numbing detail. Excavating scattered letters, fragmented diaries and second-hand references to her writings for short-lived African-American weeklies, Giddings aims, she writes, to uncover the achievements of a bold woman whose militancy and "dominating style" sometimes cost her allies in her own day and proper credit in the eyes of history. Ida Bell Wells was born to slave parents in 1862 in Holly Springs, Miss. Her father, a skilled carpenter, and mother, a housekeeper, were struck down by yellow fever when Ida was 16. Giddings writes of this turning point: "Throughout the remainder of her life, she struggled to turn the negative emotions of abandonment into a righteous determination to reform herself and the society that had forsaken her race." A precociously mature, bright and pretty teenager, standing barely five feet, Wells took charge of the upbringing of her younger siblings with help from relatives. She got some higher education, became a voracious reader with a love of Shakespeare and showed a talent for writing. She turned to teaching school to support her family, eventually moving in 1880 to Memphis. There she siphoned off some of her energy into journalism, turning out a column for a local African-American paper that regularly challenged the racist libels of the white press. Yet she remained very much the Victorian young lady who admired "noble true womanhood and perfect ladyship" and vowed to curb her "unfeminine" anger. Her craving for "perfect ladyship" toughened into a demand for respect. Black women at the time were often demeaned as dusky temptresses, which presumably explained their illicit sexual attraction to so many white men. Wells lashed out against the "wholesale contemptuous defamation of black women" and the "refusal to believe there are among us mothers, wives and maidens who have attained a true, noble and refining womanhood." Her determination to be treated as a lady provoked her first clash with white supremacy, in 1883, when she violently resisted being ejected from the whites-only "ladies car." She sued the railroad, but the Tennessee Supreme Court, in a preview of Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled she was no lady, merely a "mulatto passenger," separable and unequal, whose intention wasn't to ride comfortably but to "harrass" and litigate. Wells's anti-lynching crusade hinged on a word ladies did not utter: "rape." Defenders of the Snopesian New South, fearing Northern capitalists would pull out investments, claimed that lynching was a necessary response to an epidemic of attacks on white women by ravening black men. Defying Victorian gentility, Wells debunked this propaganda with evidence that accusations of rape were a factor in less than one-third of lynchings. The campaign that became her life's work really started in 1892 with the murders of her friend Tommie Moss and two others by a Memphis mob. Moss's offense had nothing to do with rape; he was defending the cooperative grocery of which he was president against a group of whites he believed were bent on destroying it. A solid citizen who also worked as a postman, Moss was captured with two others and jailed. A mob abducted them and put them to a slow, painful death by gunshots. The Memphis Appeal-Avalanche boasted that the lynching was "one of the most orderly of its kind ever conducted." Wells, who had since moved to New York, was shocked by Moss's death. It was "our first lesson in white supremacy," she declared. Writing about the affair in Free Speech, the paper she began editing in 1889, she almost got herself lynched by daring to suggest that white men who "overreach" in charges of rape might end up being "very damaging to the moral reputation of their women." Infuriated whites trashed her newspaper office and would have killed her had she not been out of town. Wells decided to stay in New York, and soon set down in an African-American paper a long article, "The Truth About Lynching," expanding on her contention that some white women chose to consort with black men and that black women were exploited by white men. She called for boycotts and strikes by blacks to protest lynchings. "The Winchester rifle," she wrote, "should have a place of honor in every black home," since government refused to protect them. She herself bought a gun, but investigative journalism was her primary weapon. From a variety of platforms, she broadcast authoritative facts, statistics and case histories. One of her pamphlets was devoted to an 1899 auto-da-fé in Palmetto, Ga., where a laborer named Sam Hose was accused of killing his employer, raping his wife and throwing their baby onto the floor. (A private detective hired by Wells showed that the wife had never in fact accused Hose of rape.) Hose was taken to the town square, tied to a tree and stripped naked. His ears, fingers and penis were sliced off, and then he was burned alive. Afterward, bits of charred bone, slices of liver and even parts of the tree were sold as souvenirs. The tide of lynchings continued to terrorize Southern blacks well into the 20th century. Local authorities covered up for the mobs, while the federal government looked the other way. In the early 1920s the federal anti-lynching legislation Wells-Barnett had championed died in the Senate. Meanwhile, Ida had in 1895 married a Chicago lawyer named Ferdinand Barnett, a feminist who contributed his legal skills to the cause, suing to enforce Illinois's anti-lynching laws. She settled in Chicago and bore four children, even as she continued lecture tours and meetings and ran The Conservator, a black paper her husband owned. Inspired by Jane Addams, she created programs for young black men and women patterned after those of Hull House. Susan B. Anthony endorsed her cause, and Wells joined the suffragists. But Anthony and others in the movement feared alienating their Dixie membership, so Wells concentrated on organizing black women to get out the vote for race candidates in local elections. Not long before her death in 1931, she ran unsuccessfully for state senator. Ida Wells-Barnett was among the first to grasp that the battle against lynching was the moral cutting edge of African-Americans' struggle for equality. In fighting words and brave personal witness, she exposed lynching as a crime against a people. Richard Lingeman is a senior editor of The Nation. His next book, "The Nation Guide to the Nation," will be published in January.

Kirkus Review

Massive biography of an important yet little-known figure in American civil-rights history. Giddings (In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement, 1988, etc.) attempts to rescue from obscurity anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Born into slavery in Mississippi, Wells grew up during the brief post-Civil War period of political and social ascension in which blacks, particularly black women, challenged policies that segregated the races in public places and kept African-Americans out of the voting booth. In the1880s, a series of gruesome lynchings, described by the author in graphic, horrifying detail, ended the illusion that the South had progressed much and propelled Wells to action. In editorials, speeches and pamphlets distributed throughout the United States (and eventually England), she maintained that only equal rights would end lynching--and, even more controversially, that black Americans deserved civil rights simply because they were human. That position put her at odds with less radical members of the antiracist movement, including many women's suffrage groups and nationally prominent figures like Booker T. Washington, who held that blacks must move beyond ignorance and poverty and embrace bourgeois values before they could earn the rights enjoyed by white Americans. Throughout her life, Wells existed on the outskirts of African-American activism, alienating potential allies and estranging erstwhile friends such as Frederick Douglass. Although she is a fascinating woman, this book suffers from her biographer's lack of selectivity. Giddings spares no detail or scrap of salvaged paper, however obscure or immaterial. Asides about conflicts within the black women's club movement go on for chapters, and Wells's early love life, including lengthy quotes from her suitors' letters, gets far more space than it merits. Despite such overreporting, the author fails to explain how this remarkable figure disappeared from history, a glaring oversight in a text that takes pains to explore its subject's long and colorful life from every angle. Exhaustive--indeed, sometimes exhausting--but with a key piece missing. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Giddings (Afro-American studies, Smith Coll.; When and Where I Enter) has written a massive study of this noted black activist's lifelong crusade against lynching. Prodigious research took Giddings to more than 30 archives; 100 pages of notes and bibliography attest to the depth of her scholarship. The result serves as a definitive biography of Wells. Giddings argues that her subject was a leading feminist as well as a crusader for civil rights. She explores Wells's optimism in the face of numerous setbacks, including ostracism from her home city of Memphis. The author concludes that Wells's unflinching focus on opposition to lynching ultimately was adopted by the NAACP as a central tenet, which helped lead to the NAACP's success as a civil rights organization. Much more complete than previous studies of Wells, e.g., by James West Davidson, Ida is well written and painstakingly detailed. Highly recommended for all academic and major public libraries.-A.O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Ida: A Sword Among Lions Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching Chapter One Holly Springs I often compare [my mother's] work in training her children to that of other women who had not her handicaps. -- Ida B. Wells There was no need to kill here [Holly Springs], only to deprive . . .  -- Hodding Carter Ida Wells remembered being told as a child that her mother, Elizabeth, called Liza or Lizzie by friends, was born somewhere in Virginia, was one of ten children, and that her father was part Native American and her grandfather a "full-blooded" one. The only other detail she recalled about her mother's early life was that Lizzie was taken from her family when quite young and, with two of her sisters, was sold by a slave trader into Mississippi, and sold a second time before she was purchased by Spires Boling, an architect and contractor in Holly Springs. One of her mother's masters had "seared her flesh and her mind with torturous beatings," and by contrast Boling, who never used corporal punishment against her, was the "kindest" master of all. But Ida did not remember the name of the Virginia family to whom Lizzie "belonged" or the county in which she was born. 1 However, circumstantial evidence suggests that Lizzie Wells was born to Annie Arrington and George Washington about 1844 on a plantation owned by William Arrington in Appomattox County, Virginia. 2 Lizzie must have been sold when she was seven or eight years old, the average age in most slaveholding states when a child's market value was greater without her mother than with her. Compounding the crime, but softening the blow of separation, the sale also included two of her sisters--Martha, two years younger, and Isabelle or Belle, for whom Ida was named, two years older. The sale was probably handled by George D. Davis and his brother John, merchants reputed to offer the highest prices for slaves in the area, and who had had previous dealings with the extended Arrington family. The two men customarily traveled from estate to estate, picking one, two, or three slaves from each homestead until they gathered a hundred or more to sell on the market. 3 The Davis brothers purchased most of their slaves during the summer and fall, when they could get them at lower prices and "trim, shave, wash," and "fatten" them until they looked "sleek" and could be sold at a profit. The Arringtons were closest to the Lynchburg slave mart, about twenty miles away, which was then beginning to rival Richmond and Petersburg in its volume of sales. At the height of the buying season, children who had been bought from their owners--like Lizzie, Martha, and Belle--could be seen traveling two by two, their wrists bound by a rope, their pace hastened by an enforcer's whip. 4 When such children reached Lynchburg, they were taken to a brick building on First and Lynch Street, where slaves were secured before they were sold. The prepubescence of young girls saved them from being intimately scrutinized by potential buyers who routinely examined buttocks and considered breasts. The health of children, by contrast, was determined by making them run in circles, or jump up and down, or skip along in measured distances. 5 By October of 1858, Lizzie, about thirteen or fourteen, was among the nine slaves owned by Spires Boling; her sisters, Belle and Martha, were settled nearby, in Marshall and DeSoto counties, respectively. 6 Now a boling, Lizzie's primary responsibility was cooking for the middle-aged contractor; his pregnant wife, Nancy; and the household, which consisted of an older female relative and seven children between the ages of one and eighteen. 7 Lizzie's development into an excellent cook and the nonviolent treatment at the hands of her owner were not atypical of the fourteen hundred slaves in Holly Springs. Although there were laws that prohibited blacks from assembling, and one published account by a minister noted the death of several women slaves by whipping, the political economy of the town demanded labor that required more skill than brawn; and it encouraged paternalism rather than violence. 8 The white population of Holly Springs had begun to settle in earnest there in 1837, the year Holly Springs was incorporated and the original Chickasaw Indian inhabitants had been removed to the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). Under the mounting pressure of President Andrew Jackson's land-hungry administration, the Chickasaws signed the Treaty of Pontotoc in 1832, which extinguished their title to all of the lands east of the Mississippi, comprising the entire northern portion of the state. Of the twelve Mississippi counties jigsawed out of the territory, Marshall County, in the northwestern part of the state and named after the recently deceased Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, was the largest and the richest. In a mere twenty years, it would yield more cotton per square acre than any similar subdivision in the world. Holly Springs--named after a large, thirty-foot-wide, ten-foot-deep spring in a hollow that watered a thick grove of holly trees--became Marshall's county seat and administrative center. Soon afterward, the town was embroiled in feverish land speculation and sales and also became the site of northern Mississippi's first bank. 9 As such, Holly Springs attracted "Episcopalians, Virginians and Whigs"--deserting the thinning soil and accumulating debts of the older cotton states--who brought their "ruffled shirts," "libraries," and "slaves" with them, as one historian noted. 10 The bustling county seat also attracted bankers, retail merchants, land speculators, those in the building trades, and a bevy of lawyers as the town, already cleared of growth by the Chickasaws to facilitate its use as a hunting ground, grew at a dizzying pace. By 1845, the nearly thirty-five hundred residents of Holly Springs had established St. Thomas Hall, a boy's educational academy, and the six-year-old Holly Springs Collegiate Institute for young women was prepared to award Mistress of Polite Literature degrees and include subjects such as algebra, physics, and natural philosophy. "Our object is to impart a sound, substantial, liberal education," announced its president . . . Ida: A Sword Among Lions Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching . Copyright © by Paula Giddings. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Ida: A Sword among Lions - Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching by Paula J. Giddings All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.