It’s February in America, and all across the country, school children are celebrating Black History Month—often the one time during the academic school year that children will hear the names Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and the other commonly discussed Black History Month figures. While I believe that black history is in fact American history and should not be reduced to a single month, as if it is something that we can check off of our calendars, (after all, America, often deemed the greatest country in the world, rose to such prominence through slave labor, Jim Crow laws, and racially motivated public policy—I am a staunch advocate for mandatory African American Studies classes in public schools, but that constitutes its own blog post) it is none the less important that we remember some key figures who are not often talked about in K-12 schools or are overshadowed by male civil rights “mega stars.” In particular, I am talking about Ida B. Wells.
Born a slave in Mississippi, Wells went on to attend Fisk University and became a journalist documenting life in the Jim Crow South. More than just writing, however, Wells opened the eyes and minds of millions by demonstrating what segregation was actually like in the American South. Segregation was not just eating a separate lunch counters and using separate toilets when in public—segregation was lynching, murder, and flat out terrorism. Despite numerous death threats to her and her abolitionist husband Ferdinand Barnett, Wells continued to write and publish her work in local as well as national newspapers in gruesome detail the realities of lynching and the public spectacle that it often became in the south. Wells held the south accountable by publishing the names of individuals who attended these public lynching’s, the mishandlings and lack of due process afforded to African Americans, and the police involvement.
Wells was one of the early pioneers of women in journalism, and demonstrates the power of the media—Civil Rights leaders of the next generation used her methodology when staging protests and marches. Furthermore, Wells’ work caught the attention of lawmakers and in 1918 she helped draft the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill with Republican Senator Leonidas Dyer. While the bill never passed—thanks to the Southern Democrats continuous filibuster—Wells continued to work in this field and went on to help establish the NAACP with W.E.B. Du Bois (who, shocker, refused to place her name on the official list of founders because she was a woman). It is important to remember the women that contributed, and continue to contribute, to the history of this country, both in civil rights and otherwise. American History is often taught as white, male, and heterosexual and it is up to our generation as future teachers and leaders to ensure that this trend continues no more.
-Kyle Serrott, Specialized Studies major in “Law, Gender, and Race in America”
Ohio University Women’s Center Staff