Updated date:

The Truth Will Unite Us: Ida B. Wells, Teacher and Writer

Plaque dedicated to Ida B. Wells' newspaper, the Free Speech.

Plaque dedicated to Ida B. Wells' newspaper, the Free Speech.

Wells continued teaching through the 1880s. During her summer breaks she attended Fisk University in Nashville and Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis, both historically African-American colleges. She also wrote for The Evening Star, an African American newspaper in Washington, D.C.

The aunt in Shelby County who took in her and her two younger sisters after her parents died had since remarried and moved to Visalia, California.1 Wells felt indebted to her aunt, so when she asked Wells to come to California, Wells reluctantly agreed. Wells stated that she had already “made a pleasant place for [herself]” in Memphis. She traveled with the National Education Association to Topeka, Kansas, where she applied for a job, then continued on to Visalia.

1871 class at Lemoyne College in Memphis.

1871 class at Lemoyne College in Memphis.

Wells secured a teaching job in California, but was immediately upset by the conditions:

“Hearing nothing from my friends, I went to school and registered 18 pupils - all the colored contingent of the town. This school was a makeshift one room building and the separation had been asked for by the colored people themselves, I learned, and they has been given the second rate facilities as are usual in such cases. All the white, Indian and half-breed Indian children attended the commodious building up on the hill, and I was helping to perpetuate this odious satiate of things, by staying and teaching this school. I spent an unhappy day, but again determined to make the best of a situation I could not help.” 2

Her aunt made every effort to make her stay in California - including talking her into selling her return ticket - but Wells felt that she had no future in California, and returned to Kansas City. 3

While she had been in California, the Kansas City School Board elected her to a teaching post. It is unclear why, but when Wells showed up to begin teaching, the day before school was set to begin, she discovered they had hired another African American woman, Miss Callie Jordan, in her place. Of course there was much drama, and many hurt feelings on Wells’ part. She quickly resigned from the Kansas City schools, returned to Shelby County, and asked the Superintendent for her job back. 4

The Washington School in Visalia, California.  This may have been the "church on the hill" Wells was talking about in her memoir.

The Washington School in Visalia, California. This may have been the "church on the hill" Wells was talking about in her memoir.

Wells remained single until she was 33 years old, which was, at the time, unusual for women of any color. Her dedication to feminism and suffrage was unwavering; it was not, however, so rigid that she had no interest in wasting time on men. Her journal paints the picture of a young, headstrong woman who pursued men, only to be deeply disappointed or hurt by them. 5

In her early career, Wells wrote articles and editorials under the pen name “Iola,” presumably to protect her career as an elementary school teacher. However, in her autobiography she implied that people were aware she wrote under the name Iola, that Iola could be easily tied to Wells and tracked down in Memphis, and, in reality, afforded Wells little to no anonymity.

In 1889, Reverend Taylor Nightingale asked Wells to write for the Memphis Free Speech, an African American newspaper in Memphis. What they lacked in subscriptions, it made up for in controversy; it was the most talked-about paper of the time. The Free Speech operated out of the First Baptist Church on Beale; Rev. Nightingale ministered to his flock upstairs, and printed the Free Speech in the basement. Within a short time, Wells became a co-owner of the paper.

Wells had long been an outspoken writer, but her editorial criticizing “the few and inadequate” black schools in Memphis (segregation was in force at the time) caused quite a scandal:

“Things ran along smoothly for the next two years with this arrangement, until I asked Rev. Nightingale to sign an article I had written about the schools. It was in protest against the few and inadequate buildings for colored children, and the poor teachers whose neutral and moral character was not the best. It had been charged that some of the recruits had little to recommend them save the number if illicit friendships with a member of the school board. I felt such a condition deserved criticism–and that such a test coming from a man in his position would be heeded. Besides I wanted to keep my position and I feared that unless the article was signed by him it would be charged to me.” 6

Of course, Rev. Nightingale refused to take credit for what was little more than unfounded, salacious gossip that he realized would most likely harm, rather than elevate, the Free Speech’s reputation in Memphis.

“When this editorial, nearly a half column was in type, I showed it to Reverend Nightingale with his name attached. He refused to father it. It was too late to substitute something else, as the forms for locked up ready to go to press, so I had the name withdrawn and let it ride. Needless to say that editorial created a sensation and much comment. Another paper openly stated that it was said that some of our teachers took moonlight walks and rides with the other race. To which my paper made rejoinder demanding names because the statement put under suspicion all 40 of our public school teachers.” 7

The first Clay Street School.  Wells may have taught in a school identical to this one.  It was soon replaced with a much nicer, brick school.

The first Clay Street School. Wells may have taught in a school identical to this one. It was soon replaced with a much nicer, brick school.

Even without the gossip, any criticism of the poor condition of black schools probably seemed unreasonable to the Memphis Board of Education. She was let go from her teaching position soon after the publication of her editorial:

“… the school board failed to reinstate me as it had done every year for seven years or to notify me until time for school to re-open – too late to late to seek employment elsewhere, I employed counsel to find out why. The reply was that no fault to find with my character– or efficiency–but the board had copies of the Free Speech on file in the office showing criticism of that body and for that reason I was let out.

“Of course I rather feared that as a result but I had taken a chance in the interest of the children and had lost the toughest part of the experience was the lack of appreciation by the parents. They simply could not understand why one would jeopardize a good job even for their children. The burden of their sympathetic refrain was “you ought not have done it.”8

Ultimately, her firing was probably due to several factors, including:

  • previous lawsuit against CO&S;
  • radical community activism and editorials;
  • returning to Memphis after she abandoned Memphis and they received notification that she had already been hired by the Kansas City School Board; and
  • sexist attitude towards outspoken women.
The second Clay Street School, later renamed the Kortrecht School.  It was built in 1871.  It is likely that Wells taught in a school like this.

The second Clay Street School, later renamed the Kortrecht School. It was built in 1871. It is likely that Wells taught in a school like this.

The editorial was, most likely, the proverbial straw that broke the back of her employment with the Memphis Board of Education. She claims to have been “devastated” by the decision, but what would have been more surprising would have been if the Memphis Board of Education had allowed such an outspoken community activist to continue working as a teacher. Further, this was the second time that Wells selfishly railed against parents’ wishes; she seemed to care less about what was truly best for her students, and more about saying what she wanted, when she wanted.

Not to mention, white Memphis was faring little better than black Memphis during the 1880s. The city had been a key target of the Union Army from the beginning of the Civil War, and was captured about 15 months after the South seceded from the Union. Memphis sat on the banks of the great Mississippi River, and was a key railway transportation hub. It was also home to a naval manufacturing yard and a booming industrial center. The Confederacy was unable to defend points upriver; the eight ships defending Memphis, led by civilians with no prior military experience, were no match for the Union flotilla.

Memphis, therefore, was occupied by Union troops from June 1862 through the end of the Civil War. Most of its economic success had been built on the foundation of slavery; now that the institution had been abolished, the city had to find a new way to support itself. After the war, as though karma had Memphis in its sights, Memphis suffered from several outbreaks of yellow fever; in 1878, the same year in which Wells lost her parents, the outbreak was so bad that roughly 25,000 people fled in fear, and a quarter of the remaining population - about 5,000 people - perished from the disease. 9 That only left about 14,000 people in Memphis, which greatly reduced its tax income. Soon after, the city was forced into bankruptcy and lost its charter; it was most likely a combination of losing both tax dollars and manpower that forced the state of Tennessee to take over governance of the city.

Wells’ dismissal from teaching fanned the flames of her radical politics. In 1891, the founder of The Memphis Free Speech, Reverend Taylor Nightingale - who was said to be the most moderate of the three owners - was run out of town by police. Wells’ and Fleming’s reporting and editorials were most likely the cause of his expulsion. Without him tightly holding the reigns, Wells and Fleming freely expressed their extremist positions, unfettered.

Then, on Wednesday, March 9, 1892, fate once again interjected itself into Wells’ life.

1, 2, 3 Preface, two versions, (5 p.); Chapters I through VI, (30 p.), Chapters VII through XVI (42 p.); "Shipmates on first voyage to England... Chapter 5 of my first writing" in pencil; newspaper clippings, 1893 (https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0001-002.pdf)

4,6,7,8 Preface, two versions, (5 p.); Chapters I through VI, (30 p.), Chapters VII through XVI (42 p.); "Shipmates on first voyage to England... Chapter 5 of my first writing" in pencil; newspaper clippings, 1893 (https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0001-003.pdf)

5 Ida B. Wells’ diary, 1885-1887. Entries begin in Holly Springs, Mississippi, December 29, 1885, and end in Woodstock, Tennessee, September 12, 1887, 213 p. (https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0009-008.pdf)

9 http://www.historic-memphis.com/memphis-historic/yellow-fever/yellow-fever.html

© 2018 Carrie Peterson