A journalist, activist, and one of the founding members of the NAACP, Ida B. Wells was born to slaves in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She prioritized her work over romantic relationships, but eventually, she did get married, and in a rare turn of events given her background, her wedding was noted in the paper of record.
The New York Times is unearthing and contextualizing notable announcements from their archives in a new recurring series called “Committed”; in this one, reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones (who herself was one of the founders of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting) opens with some background on Wells’ relationship to Ferdinand L. Barnett, a lawyer and owner of the Chicago Conservator, whom Hannah-Jones characterizes as “‘a race man’ and a fellow feminist.” Though the announcement was just a small blurb on the front page, Hannah-Jones writes that “the nuptials of a black woman, born into slavery 33 years earlier, could make the front page of The Times, speaks to a woman who was, by definition, remarkable.” Ida B. Wells had by that time, however, been doing remarkable things her whole life.
According to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Wells’s parents died when she was a teenager from yellow fever, and she worked to support her brother and sisters as a schoolteacher in Memphis. While traveling to her job, she was approached by a train conductor who insisted she move from a parlor car to a smoking car reserved for black passengers. She refused, and when he grabbed her, she bit him. Wells brought a suit against the railroad and won in circuit court, though the win was later overturned in the state court.
Her career as a teacher ended when she denounced the educational standards and conditions for black children. She became part owner of the Memphis Star, but was run out of town when she wrote articles about the practice of lynching black men. Hannah-Jones reports that Wells openly said that lynch mobs formed to kill black men after they would have consensual sex with white women, justifying murder by calling them rapists. Wells regularly toured to speak about lynching, and was part of a delegation that went to President McKinley in 1898 to demand action in the lynching of a black postmaster in South Carolina.
Her speaking and writing careers kept her so busy she rescheduled her wedding three times. Hannah-Jones writes that on the day of the wedding, interest in the ceremony was high:
When the day finally came, the 27th of June, 1895, the event was fitting for an icon. “The interest of the public in the affair seemed to be so great that not only was the church filled to overflowing, but the streets surrounding the church were so packed with humanity that it was almost impossible for the carriage bearing the wedding bridal party to reach the church door,” Ms. Wells wrote in her autobiography.
At the wedding, Wells’s bridesmaids reportedly wore “lemon crepe dresses set off with white ribbons,” while she wore a “a white satin trained gown trimmed with orange blossoms.”
Wells, who kept her last name following her marriage, had four children. At first, she maintained her touring, but took a break after her second child. Her great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, has worked to maintain her legacy, according to the AP, and began an effort in 2012 to erect a statue of Wells in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, in honor of the 150th anniversary of her death.