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Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930, by Patricia A. Schechter. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xx, 386 pp. $59.95 US (cloth), $19.95 US (paper).

In late 1894 William A. Dunning, in summarizing recent developments in America, as well as around the world, for the December issue of the Political Science Quarterly (Vol IX, No. 4, p. 772), noted the arrival of Miss Ida B. Wells in New York in July. Returning to America after a lecture tour of Great Britain, the anti-lynching campaigner had then continued her work in the northern United States, seeking to raise awareness of the daily injustices encountered by Black Americans. Dunning concluded, however, that while Wells had had "more or less success" in England in arousing public sentiment, her efforts in the North "failed to attract any great sympathy, so far at least as the press was concerned." Moreover, in the Southern states "her agitation, as well as her personal character, was bitterly denounced." If Dunning hoped that this rather curt assessment of Ida B. Wells's efforts in the anti-lynching campaign would dissuade her from her cause, he was very mistaken. Despite the hostility of large numbers of white journalists and academics, Ida Wells continued her anti-lynching work, in addition to her support of a number of other activist causes. Later historians have proved to be more inclined toward serious consideration of Wells's life and work, among them Patricia A. Schechter, author of the brilliant Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930.

Schechter provides a fascinating account of Wells's early life and of the events that led her towards a career as a civil rights activist. Ida B. Wells was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in the midst of the American Civil War and the dying days of American slavery. Her family, like thousands of others in the South, would experience not only the pain and suffering of Reconstruction, but also the destructive power of yellow fever. Following the death of her parents and two siblings in 1878 from this disease, Ida Wells embarked on a career in teaching in order to support her surviving brothers and sisters. In the early 1880s she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and began commuting by train to teach at a rural school just across the border in Mississippi. These journeys brought Wells face-to-face with the evolving system of Jim Crow segregation when, in 1884, she came into conflict with railroad officials over her refusal to travel in the smoking car rather than the ladies' car. Wells sued the train company and initially won her case, but the hardening of racial lines was apparent when the verdict was overturned in 1887. This episode inspired Wells to embark upon her "crusade for justice." She began to write newspaper articles about the poor conditions in African American schools, a move that ended her teaching career when she was fired, but brought about new opportunities as a passionate journalist. Wells launched her well-known campaign against lynching following the brutal deaths of two friends. The violent white reaction forced her to re-locate to the North where she ultimately settled in Chicago and participated in a variety of reform efforts until her death in 1931.

Schechter provides an extensive and insightful analysis of Wells's involvement in the reform movements of the late nineteenth century and demonstrates why this leader should be known for far more than her campaign to stop lynchings. Wells was also active in the suffrage movement, founding or helping to found the first African American woman's suffrage association, the Black women's club movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Afro-American Council, and the Chicago Equal Rights League. Wells was part of a web of reform activism that sought to improve the lives of African Americans during a period when white reform movements, for the most part, ignored the conditions encountered by Black Americans in the North as well as the South. Inspired by her religious faith and her commitment to social justice, a combination that Schechter terms "visionary pragmatism," Wells pursued her reform work in Chicago and beyond. Yet as Schechter effectively demonstrates, Wells's work as a reformer, be it at the local, state, or national level, was never easy. She had to deal not only with opposition from white Americans, but also with criticism of her outspokenness from within the African American community. One strength of Schechter's work is the new insights it offers into the developing conflicts among Black leaders as to how best to address the problems of the African American community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Schechter's analysis of these struggles, in turn, provides us with a far more detailed and nuanced understanding of the life and career of Ida B. Wells.

While Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 enables readers to gain a far better understanding of Wells's place in the reform landscape of Progressive-era America, this book is not, as the author rightly points out, a definitive biography. Indeed, one is left wondering about many issues, most especially Ida B. Wells's relationships with her husband, Ferdinand Barnett, and with her children and step-children. Yet the lack of extensive surviving evidence about these and other intimate matters, itself illustrates the complexities and constraints of the race and gender relations that shaped Wells's career. She did not talk about private matters in great detail due to her vulnerable position as an African American woman challenging a power structure that would take any opportunity to undermine her credibility and her authority. As William Dunning noted, both Ida B. Well's agitation and her personal character were denounced by the media. Even as Schechter does not reveal every aspect of the life of Ida B. Wells, by illuminating the environment in which Wells operated, she demonstrates why this reformer felt the need to hide details of her own story at the same time as she sought to expose the stories of injustice faced by the Black men and women of America.

Mary Margaret Johnston-Miller

Library and Archives Canada
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Author:Johnston-Miller, Mary Margaret
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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