• IdentificationICU.SPCL.IBWELLS
  • TitleGuide to the Ida B. Wells Papers1884-1976
  • PublisherUniversity of Chicago Library
  • LanguageEnglish
  • Date1884-1976
  • Physical Description6 linear feet (11 boxes)
  • RepositorySpecial Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.
  • AbstractIda B. Wells, (1862-1931) teacher, journalist and anti-lynching activist. Paper contain correspondence, manuscript of Crusade for Justice: the Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, diaries, copies of articles and speeches by Wells, articles and accounts about Wells, newspapers clippings, and photographs. Also contains Alfreda M. Duster’s (Wells’ daughter) working copies of the autobiography which Duster edited. Correspondents include Frederick Douglass and Albion Tourgee. Includes photocopies of correspondence of Wells’ husband Ferdinand Barnett and a scrapbook of newspapers articles written by him.

© The contents of this finding aid are the copyright of the University of Chicago Library

African American Studies


Chicago and Illinois

Politics, Public Policy and Political Reform

The collection is open for research. A scrapbook, located in Series XVIII, Subseries 1, by Ferdinand Barnett is restricted due to its fragile condition. A photocopy has been produced for researchers and is located in a binder in Box 10.

When quoting material from this collection, the preferred citation is: Wells, Ida B. Papers, [Box #, Folder #], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to her slave parents. Following the death of both her parents of yellow fever in 1878, Ida, at age 16, began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Mississippi. Some time between 1882 and 1883 Wells moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to teach in city schools. She was dismissed, in 1891, for her outspoken criticism of segregated schools.

Her dismissal from the Memphis school system would be the beginning of her protests about justice, particularly as they pertained to the treatment of black Americans. In 1884 Ida B. Wells sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad for forcing blacks to ride in segregated and inferior carriages. Ida B. Wells won this case in the local court, but was defeated in the Supreme Court. Undaunted by heavy opposition and a seemingly hopeless cause, however, Wells, from that point on, made the welfare of African American people her main concern, meeting every obstacle head on with a characteristic determination.

A firm believer in the necessity for vast change, and in the value of education and direct challenge to bring this change about, Ida B. Wells began contributing articles to newspapers in 1887. She used these articles as a political tactic to further her cause; something she continued to do all her life. As editor of the Memphis Free Speech, her editorials condemning “lynch law” caused white mobs to wreck her press. One of the foremost crusaders against lynching, Wells was not silenced by such threats. Twice, in 1893 and 1894, she took her cause abroad on speaking tours of England, Scotland, and Wales.

In 1895 she published A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 (Chicago: [1895]). The years 1893-1895 also saw Wells produce, with Frederick Douglass, Ferdinand L. Barnett (whom she was to marry in 1895), and I. Garland Penn, the booklet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the Columbian Exposition -- The Afro-American’s Contribution to Columbian Literature (Chicago: Ida B. Wells, 1893).

From 1910 on, Wells moved within the mainstream of black civic and political life in Chicago. She had, in earlier years, founded civic clubs -- the first of their kind for black American women; the Ida B. Wells Women’s Club is still in existence today. Between 1910 and 1931 she established the Negro Fellowship League, was instrumental in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and organized the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first suffrage club for black Women. She led the fight to elect Chicago’s first black alderman and congressman, Oscar DePriest, and herself ran (unsuccessfully) for state senator of Illinois in 1930. Her participation and leadership in numerous organizations, and her constant vigilance in the interests of black Americans was far-reaching.and a particularly difficult and courageous task.

About 1927, Ida B. Wells began to write her autobiography, which she finished before her death on March 21, 1931. Edited by her daughter, Alfreda M. Duster, the autobiography was published as Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, as part of a series of Negro American Biographies and Autobiographies edited by John Hope Franklin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

The Ida B. Wells Papers consists of six linear feet of original manuscripts, correspondence, newspaper and journal articles written and compiled by Ida B. Wells-Barnett. The amount of material in the collection is rather small due to two house fires (1915 and 1923) that destroyed virtually all of her personal and professional papers. The papers have been divided into nineteen series that range from originals and transcripts of Crusade for Justice, biographical information, diaries, and writings and clippings to files on her lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio & Southwestern Railroad, the Ida B. Wells Woman’s Club, and secondary materials and photographs.

Aside from the original manuscripts of her autobiography Crusade for Justice: Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, there are 27 original photographs, articles, and correspondence. The collection also contains Wells’ diaries from 1885-1887 and 1930, and two other books owned by her. The papers include contemporary accounts and articles about Ida B. Wells, including her trips to England and her suit against the Chesapeake, Ohio, & Southwestern Railroad Company. The oversize materials in Box 11 contain additional contemporary newspaper accounts. The remainder of the collection consists chiefly of her daughter Alfreda M. Duster’s working copies of the autobiography, including a few biographical versions, research correspondence, notes, background material, publication correspondence concerning Crusade for Justice, and articles about Ida B. Wells.

Much of the information on the original folder headings has been retained, including information in quotation marks taken from Alfreda M. Duster’s folder heading notes. The use of the initials “AMD” and “IBW” in the inventory refer to Alfreda M. Duster and Ida B. Wells, respectively. Ida B. Wells’ name also appears as “IBW-B” to indicate her married name, Barnett.

Series XIX contains a small amount of addenda material relating to Ida B. Wells that came at a later date. It includes a small but important collection of manuscript and primary printed materials concerning Ida B. Wells including correspondence with Frederick Douglass and Judge Albion Tourgee, articles, and original newspaper clippings written by and about her. This series also includes photocopies of correspondence of her husband Ferdinand Barnett and a scrapbook of newspaper articles written by Ferdinand Barnett. The scrapbook is in fragile condition and is not available for research, but a photocopy of the entire scrapbook has been made and is located in Box 10 Folder 8.

The following related resources are located in the Department of Special Collections:

  • Names
    • Wells-Barnett, Ida B., 1862-1931
    • Barnett, Ferdinand
    • Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895
    • Duster, Alfreda 1904-
    • Tourgée, Albion Winegar, 1838-1905
    • World’s Columbian Exposition
  • Subject
    • Lynching
    • African Americans
    • African American women