I first became aware of the accomplishments of Ida B. Wells, or Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, as an undergraduate in the Women’s Studies program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her photograph was striking, her expression equal parts gentleness and power. That image has remained with me although her innumerable accomplishments melted into a communal pool of suffragettes’ achievements in my mind. Years later, as a tutor at the University of Mississippi, I discovered her proximity to Oxford. Born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells and her family were liberated six months after her birth by the Emancipation Proclamation. Of course, there were more than numerous limitations to that freedom. Wells devoted her life to improving the lives of African Americans, as well as joining forces with other suffragettes. Disappointingly, the predominantly white Women’s Movement did not always embrace Wells and other African American activists, thinking it would hinder their own progression. But Wells was forever undaunted. Much of her work as a journalist exposed the horrors and injustice of lynchings. She claimed, rightly, that lynching was an intimidation tactic used to discourage professional African Americans from competing with white entrepreneurship. In 1892, she published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. As a journalist and activist she was prolific.
Wells’s influence is universal, but nowhere is her presence so profound as it is in her
hometown of Holly Springs. Her father, James Wells, founded Rust College (then Shaw University) as one of the nation’s first black universities in 1866. The original building still — mostly — stands. I see it whenever I drive home from Oxford to Boliver, Tennessee, sweetly decrepit and always graced by a wake of vultures. The new campus is just across the street and remains a historically black liberal arts college. The Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum is located in the Wells’s family home, a humble but impressive dwelling for artifacts pertaining to her trail-blazing career. For museum hours and admission information visit the Ida B Wells-Barnett Museum’s website, listed below. It may be worth mentioning that Holly Springs, now more than ever, could use our patronage. I hope we can all find inspiration from Wells’s lifelong conviction that “There must always be a remedy for wrong and injustice if we only know how to find it.”