From time to time, I worry about what one person (OK, me) can do to make the world a better place. It seems too hard to think of myself as someone who can make change happen. After all, I’m no celebrity, and not famous.
Today, I read an article about Ida B. Wells. She was born into slavery–not exactly a power position. Her parents and two siblings died of yellow fever in the early 1870s, leaving her to care for the rest of the children in the family. Sounds like a full-time job, but she barely let it slow her down. She went to college and became a journalist. She bought a first-class train ticket and the conductor told her she belonged in the smoking car. She refused to move. She was arrested (this was 30 years before Rosa Parks). She fought the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. Because racial injustice was legal. Many of her peers told her to “just sit down and accept the law.” She did not.
She became a journalist in Memphis and spoke out about lynchings. She wrote a story that white mobs often murdered black men who had consensual sex with white women. She didn’t yet have the right to vote, but refused to live within the constrictions other people made for her. She did not remain silent.
White people protested her writings, then burned down the newspaper and ran her out of town. Wells settled in Chicago, and with Jane Addams, prevented Chicago from opening segregated schools.
She was called a “race woman,” which is what black feminists were called then. The leadership of civil rights organizations was largely male in those days. White feminists often shunned black women for fear that “diluting the issues would mean slower progress for all women.” Sound familiar?
She married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a “race man,” and feminist, in 1895. Better said, she “finally”married him. She put off the wedding three times to stand for civil rights issues and feminist issues, which she thought were more important than getting married on a specific day. In those days, postponing a marriage was scandalous. She had different priorities.
The New York Times ran her marriage announcement on page 1, something highly unusual, not just because she was a black woman, but because announcing a marriage publicly was almost unheard of. The Times ran the first announcement in September, 1851, in its first issue, but a front page announcement of a “race couple” was almost unheard of in 1895.
She had four children, continued to work, and, among other things, helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She died in 1931. She was one person. She was also one person who did not give up. And the world changed because of her.
—Quinn McDonald knows there are heroes all around her, from the past and from the present. She is amazed at the courage they exhibited, just in daily life.