Justice, Ink, Wells

Ida B. Wells was a one-woman wonder. Acclaimed journalist, a founder of the NAACP, a relentless civil-rights activist, an educator, suffragette, wife and mother, she was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her words would light up the nation.

Philip Dray’s Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells: The Daring Life of a Crusading Journalist takes children back to the corrupt, segregated Jim Crow era in which Ida, the oldest of eight children, grew up. Even though slavery was abolished when she was 3, the ability to exercise that freedom was limited for her family, as well as for other African Americans. A touching passage in this picture book shows young Ida reading the newspaper aloud to her father and his friend, who never had the opportunity to attend school and learn to read.

At 16, her parents and a baby brother died from yellow fever, and Ida insisted she would take care of them. After passing the teachers’ exam, her career as an educator began in what “looked more like a barn than a classroom,” with few books or supplies for a crowd that spanned all ages.

When her siblings grew older, Ida found a better-paying teaching job in Memphis, TN, where she joined a group of intellectuals called a lyceum. This is where Ida first flexed her journalistic talents. In her position as editor of the group’s journal, she began to write about educational, political, and practical matters.

Ida was on her way, perhaps in ways she had not anticipated. Boarding a train to her school one day, Ida settled into the first-class car, for which she had bought a ticket. The conductor, however, told her she couldn’t sit there, as it was reserved for whites only. She refused to move, and he and some others forced her off the train. (Interestingly, the author omits the detail of Ida biting the hand of the conductor as he tried to drag her out of her seat.)

Ida was not finished with that train. She hired a lawyer and sued the company. The judge ruled the railroad would have to pay Ida $500. Alas, that decision was appealed to Tennessee’s Supreme Court, where it was overturned.

Ida was not finished with that train. She wrote of her court case against the railroad, and that story appeared in newspapers around the country. People would hear a lot from Ida B. Wells in the coming years.

She became a business partner and writer for the local newspaper Memphis Free Speech and was able to support herself as a journalist. Sadly, some of her most important articles were born of a friend’s murder.

Tom Moss and a couple of friends had a popular store in Memphis called The People’s Grocery. A white man who owned a nearby store talked about how he’d like to see Tom go out of business. One night in 1892, several white men stormed the store. To scare them off, Tom’s friends fired their guns. Subsequently they and not their attackers were arrested and thrown in jail.

The trial never occurred, however. A mob of white men took Tom and his friends out of the jail and lynched them. No one was ever charged with those murders.

After researching the prevalence of lynching (in the early 1890s, a black person was lynched almost every other day, as this book notes in information following the story), Ida wrote numerous articles and essays about the issue. In doing so, she exposed herself to unfathomable risks.

In fact, a group of angry white men destroyed her newspaper offices. Fortunately, Ida was away in New York, where she would soon take a job writing for The New York Age, one of the nation’s most popular black newspapers. This was just the platform she needed to expose the depravity of lynching and the injustice of Jim Crow laws. “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” she wrote, seemingly describing the mission of her life.

Mr. Dray, the author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, skillfully employs both primary and secondary sources in his first book for children. He complements the inspiring narrative with an afterword supplying additional information about Ida B. Wells, as well as a timeline, information about lynching, and a bibliography. This title — taken from Wells’s customary way of closing her writing — is highly recommended for fourth grade and up, and could facilitate discussions on equality, social justice, women’s history, African-American history, and the role of journalism in exposing a culture’s hypocrisy and wrongs.

For ages 10 and up, see also …

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“The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow” from PBS.

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