Born a slave during the Civil War, Ida B. Wells was among the first generation of African-Americans who, in the wake of emancipation, had to define themselves in a radically new way — and had to fight back attempts by the mainstream white society to impose on them a definition from the outside.
As James West Davidson writes in his stellar ‘They Say’: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race, freedom for blacks threatened to upend the white assertion that African-Americans were lesser human beings. Race — and the separation of the races — suddenly became much more significant.
The struggle arose out of the vacuum created when emancipation eliminated the legal categories of slave and free. If the law of the land prescribed a status, slave, which could be upheld and regulated, race was a useful concept but not necessarily paramount.
Once the legal props of slavery disappeared, however, it became much more difficult for one group of people to justify keeping another in an inferior position. Race was the key. A line was drawn — a color line, as Wells called it — that during the 1880s and 1890s was increasingly buttressed by new laws, customs, and sanctions, until that single drop of “black blood” was sufficient to make the line sharp, bright, and unyielding.
Lynching was one horrific result.
And, often, these murders of blacks — through hanging, shooting, drowning, fire or some combination of these and other methods — were committed in the name of racial purity.
They were committed frequently because of the white perception/fantasy that a black had tried to rape a white woman, or simply considered the possibility — and, therefore, taint “pure” white blood.
Before emancipation, white society was much less righteous about such racial mingling. For one thing, any attempt by a mob to lynch a slave was an attack on the property of the white owner. Indeed, as Davidson notes, there were cases of white women who had mixed-race babies without leading immediately to violence.
Even more significant was that whites were often responsible for the race-mingling that did take place — a white master or overseer forcing a female slave to have sex.
Wells’s father Jim, for instance, was the mulatto son of a black slave named Peggy and her white master. The white man was kind to Jim and put him into an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and the master’s wife Miss Polly put up with the awkward situation quietly.
Until her husband died.
During Wells’s childhood, she found out what happened then when she overheard a remark from her father during a visit by his mother. Wells recalled, many decades later, that Peggy suggested to Jim that he visit the aging Miss Polly, but he responded bitterly:
“Mother, I never want to see that old woman as long as I live. I’ll never forget how she had you stripped and whipped the day after the old man died, and I am never going to see her.”
For Wells, it was a startling glimpse into this aspect of slavery and its impact on her people and, even more, on her family.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, white society, particularly in the South, identified black men as sex-crazed, particularly toward white women, while dismissing black women as whores and sluts.
In fact, though — as the story of the first half of the life of Wells shows— many African-Americans modelled themselves of the Victorian white middle-class in terms of norms, expectations, manners and money-making.
However, growing into adulthood, Wells was caught in the tension between being ladylike (and submissive) or being assertive (and self-defining). She wanted to be a genteel middle-class African-American woman, but, too bright and too passionate and, ultimately, too angry, she found herself — she ended up defining herself — as an firebrand.
Not just as a black journalist, but even more as a black crusader against the lynching that was epidemic throughout the South.
The title of Davidson’s book, ‘They Say,’ is indicative of the dilemma that blacks faced in the post-war era. Would African-Americans be defined by what they — whites — said? Or would blacks have their own say? Davidson writes that his book isn’t a biography of Wells:
Rather, it is an attempt to chart one woman’s steps toward personal and cultural self-definition — steps that were thwarted by a movement to hedge in African Americans according to the evolving racial constructs of the day.
Reconstruction in the political sense, under which the South was brought back into the Union, ended in 1877. But the reconstruction of race as a concept and as a social and political weapon continued through the final decades of the century and beyond.
Like many other black Americans, Wells found that she could forge her own identity only by challenging and contesting the second-class citizenship that emerged out of that reconstruction of race.
And Wells discovered the lynching was at the heart of that reconstruction.
As a young adult, Wells wanted to live a normal life in an abnormal time, but it was not to be:
When she came to Memphis in 1881, Ida B. Wells was not bent toward a career as an agitator.
She went to church, enjoyed the theater, shopped at the department stores, sought to join in the same middle-class life that so many whites and more than a few blacks enjoyed.
She was driven to her life’s work because she refused to let others define her.
Ida B. Wells is an important figure in American history as a chronicler of lynching and a crusader against it. She should be more widely known.
‘They Say’ by James West Davidson does her justice and is a great place to start learning her story.
Patrick T. Reardon