It is the 16th of July 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Sam Leanza Ortiz, filling in for Dan van Voorhis, who is on vacation.
Today we honor a different sort of Crusader than the Crusaders we discussed yesterday. Today we remember the "Crusader for Justice," the African American anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells who was born on this day in 1862.
Ida was born to James and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Wells on a plantation in Holly Springs, Mississippi, at the height of the Civil War. She and her parents would receive their freedom just three years later.
The years of Reconstruction were a high point in the black American story, and they would be some of the happiest for young Ida. Her mother attended a Methodist school, her father worked in carpentry, and Ida was able to be a school child immersed in the religious world of her mother.
These happy years would come to an end, however, as tragedy struck in 1877 and 1878. First, the Compromise of 1877 removed any federal protections for black Americans in the South. This ushered in the era of Jim Crow. A year later, a yellow fever pandemic struck her hometown, killing her parents and youngest sibling.
As the oldest of seven, Ida cared for her younger siblings and provided for the family as a schoolteacher. Eventually, she moved the family to Memphis, Tennessee, where she would attend the historically black Fisk University.
Memphis was a turning point for Ida. Not only did she attend college, but she also began to face, head-on, the discrimination that would motivate the rest of her life's work. In 1884, she sued the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company for removing her from the first-class car, even though she had purchased a first-class ticket. She won in the lower courts, but the Company's appeal in the state Supreme Courts reversed the lower court decision.
Wells was not deterred. In 1889, three African-American men, one a friend of Ida’s, were horrifically lynched. In this same year, she became part-owner of the Free Speech newspaper, which would become her platform for some of her first anti-lynching reporting.
Her works, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, published in 1892, and The Red Record, her detailed statistical analysis of lynching in the United States, shed light domestically and eventually, internationally on the horrific violence befalling black Americans. Within these works, Ida would write from her Christian convictions and challenge American Christians who had “heard of this awful affair and read of its details and neither press nor pulpit gave the matter more than a passing comment.”
While she would eventually win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her groundbreaking work, Wells initially suffered greatly for her work. Six days after an anti-lynching editorial was published, her Memphis office was burned down.
She would eventually relocate to Chicago, where she married her lawyer Ferdinand Lee Barnett. In Chicago, Ida's religious and political convictions would meld once more in her work as a journalist, activist, Sunday School teacher, and caregiver for her family and community.
Religiously, Ida never considered herself committed herself to any one denomination. Her Methodist upbringing played a significant role in her life. She put down roots at Bethel AME Church, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Chicago, where she established Chicago’s first black kindergarten.
She would uproot her religious life in 1901 when the pastor at Bethel was accused of sexual misconduct. When the denominational hierarchy refused to address the pastor’s actions, Wells and her two daughters began attending Grace Presbyterian.
Wells never considered herself to be a Presbyterian. Instead, she entered the church on the understanding that "all Christian denominations agreed on a standard of conduct and right living it seemed to me to matter very little what name we bore.” Despite her lack of Reformed bona fides, she made quite a life for herself within that church body.
Her experience as a schoolteacher undoubtedly aided her as she taught a young men’s Bible study, which would become an organizing and recruiting ground for the Negro Fellowship League. In response to the passion Ida exuded in her Sunday School, these men were spurred on to help new black residents, fleeing the Jim Crow South, build new lives in Chicago.
Wells’s later years saw her continue her political causes, including her nearly four-decade pursuit of federal anti-lynching legislation, as well as the protected right to vote for female and black Americans. She also spent time writing her autobiography, aptly titled Crusade for Justice, which was eventually published posthumously as she died on March 25, 1931.
And so today, we remember the full life of Ida B. Wells, who was born on this day in 1862.
The last word from today comes from the book of Jeremiah, the 23rd chapter, reflecting on the coming kingdom of Christ:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of July 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie.
This episode was written and read by Sam Leanza Ortiz.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.