This past Thursday, March 16th, marked the 190 year anniversary of the first Black newspaper being published in the United States. On March 16, 1827, the first edition of the “Freedom’s Journal” was published at a time when Blacks were still slaves and considered property, rather than human beings. This month, we also celebrate National Women’s History Month in this country, at a time when women’s rights are under attack, and many in society are seeking to silence their voices. By thinking about the importance of these two significant celebrations, I can’t help but think about an African American woman whose character, boldness and ingenuity plays a huge part in what I do every week at the Forward Times – Ms. Ida B. Wells.
The generational legacy and influence of Ida B. Wells continues to live on, as she serves as a modern day inspiration to me; although she is no longer physically present amongst us.
Wells was born a slave in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Both of her parents knew how to read, so they taught her how to read at an early age. Growing up around political activists gave Wells a sense of hope about the hope and future possibilities for former slaves in American society. After both of her parents and her infant brother died unexpectedly when she was 16 years old, she had to take on the responsibility of raising her five younger brothers and sisters.
While in Memphis, she had become accustomed to riding the train in whatever seat she chose, but in 1883 she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad because they forbade her from sitting in the ladies coach. This incident sparked Wells to write an article about the experience, which became an instant success and helped influence her to change her career to become a journalist.
Wells continued to fight against injustices all throughout the South and decided to use the power of her pen to expose the motives behind the violence against Black people. As lynching had become one of the main strategic tools to terrorize Blacks in the South, Wells wrote about lynching and began to expose it, becoming the focal point of her crusade for justice.
When three of her male friends, who were successful businessmen, were lynched on the pretext of a crime they did not commit, Wells wrote about the situation with a clarity and forcefulness that riveted the attention of both Blacks and Whites. She advocated for both an economic boycott and a mass exodus, and traveled through the United States and England, writing and speaking about lynching and the government’s refusal to intervene to stop it. This so enraged her enemies that they burned her presses, and put a price on her head, threatening her life if she returned to the South. Wells remained in exile for almost forty years, and eventually purchased a partial interest in a Black newspaper called the “Memphis Free Speech and Headlight” (later renamed “Free Speech”), and became the newspaper’s editor. Wells did not shy away from controversy in the pages of “Free Speech”. A turning point in her career occurred when she wrote an article that was very critical of Memphis’s separate but not-so-equal schools. The anonymous piece described the rundown buildings and teachers who had received little more education than their students. Such revelations did not sit well with members of the local Board of Education.
Along with everyone else who had heard of “Free Speech”, they knew that Wells was the one who had written the article. The uproar cost Wells her teaching job. Wells earned enough money to purchase a half-share of “Free Speech” and under her leadership the circulation increased from 1,500 to 4,000. Readers relied on “Free Speech” to tackle the most controversial subjects, even when that meant speaking out against Blacks as well as Whites.
When Wells received word that her friend Tom Moss, the father of her goddaughter, had been lynched, she quickly came to the realization that lynchings were not being used to punish criminals, but was being used to enforce White supremacy. Moss’s only crime was that he was successfully competing with a White grocer, and for this, he and his partners were murdered. In a series of deeply scathing editorials in “Free Speech”, she urged Blacks to boycott Memphis’s new streetcar line and move out west if possible. Blacks listened to Wells and began leaving Memphis by the hundreds. Two pastors of large Black churches took their entire congregations to Oklahoma, and others soon followed. Those who stayed behind boycotted White businesses, creating financial hardships for commercial establishments as well as for the public transportation system. The city’s papers attempted to dissuade Blacks from leaving by reporting on the hostile American Indians and dangerous diseases awaiting them out west. To counter their claims, Wells spent three weeks traveling in Oklahoma. Upon her return she published a firsthand account of the actual conditions. Fast becoming a target for angry White men and women, Wells was advised by friends to ease up on her editorials. Instead, Wells decided to carry a pistol. Wells continued her advocacy work until she died in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68. She was a a bold and fearless trailblazer who must never be forgotten.
So many of our young people have no idea who Ida B. Wells was, let alone what she endured and what contributions she made to make our country a better place to live. I can’t imagine a world without Ida B. Wells or the Black Press, and we must do what we can to ensure our Black leaders and our Black newspapers are never forgotten.
In order for our current and future generations of young leaders to have a sustained sense of hope, they must first be in tune with reading and understanding how to use their voices and influence to make a difference. Social media and technology has given younger people an opportunity to gather information and be expressive in a new, unique way. The importance of the Black press and Black newspapers is still significant when it comes to spreading news by us, for us and about us. Young people still have to learn their true history, and share with their peers the knowledge they learn through blogs, social media and Internet web sites. That is going to take an active community of leaders for it to happen, and the Black press must help lead the way.
Never in modern history have we seen a U.S. president blatantly distort facts, disrespect the media and make unprecedented dysfunction an ordinary part of their administration.
There are a lot of concerned people in this country, and so it is incumbent upon us as the Black Press to ensure that we continue to educate, equip and empower our readers with the information, real facts and a lot of inspiration and encouragement in order to stay on top of what is truly going on in the world, and to hold the president and any other elected official or group accountable for their rhetoric, decisions and actions. We must not let the foundational and historical standards established by Ida B. Wells and other members of the Black Press to die out. We must carry the torch and continue to be the standard bearers of truth and information, who speak truth to power and who continue to educate, equip and empower our overall communities.
Jeffrey L. Boney serves as Associate Editor and is an award-winning journalist for the Houston Forward Times newspaper. Jeffrey has been a frequent contributor on the Nancy Grace Show and Primetime Justice with Ashleigh Banfield. Jeffrey has a national daily radio talk show called Real Talk with Jeffrey L. Boney, and is a dynamic, international speaker, experienced entrepreneur, business development strategist and Founder/CEO of the Texas Business Alliance. If you would like to request Jeffrey as a speaker, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org