To Tell the Truth Freely The Life of Ida B. Wells

Mia Bay

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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Born to slaves in 1862, Ida B. Wells became a fearless anti-lynching crusader, women's rights advocate, and journalist. Wells's refusal to accept any compromise on racial inequality caused her to be labeled a "dangerous radical" in her day but made her a model for later civil rights activists as well as a powerful witness to the troubled racial politics of her era. In the richly illustrated To Tell the Truth Freely, the historian Mia Bay vividly captures Wells's legacy and life, from her childhood in Mississippi to her early career in late nineteenth-century Memphis and her later life in Progressive-era Chicago. Wells's fight for racial and gender justice began in 1883, when she was a young schoolteacher who traveled to her rural schoolhouse by rail. Forcibly ejected from her seat on a train one day on account of her race, Wells immediately sued the railroad. Though she ultimately lost her case on appeal in the Supreme Court of Tennessee, the published account of her legal challenge to Jim Crow changed her life, propelling her into a career as an outspoken journalist and social activist. Also a fierce critic of the racial violence that marked her era, Wells went on to launch a crusade against lynching that took her across the United States and eventually to Britain. Though she helped found the NAACP in 1910 after resettling in Chicago, she would not remain a member for long. Always militant in her quest for racial justice, Wells rejected not only Booker T. Washington's accommodationism but also the moderating influence of white reformers within the early NAACP. The life of Ida B. Wells and her enduring achievements are dramatically recovered in Mia Bay's To Tell the Truth Freely.


Praise for To Tell the Truth Freely

"Superb . . . Having been squeezed out of a role in national civil and women’s rights organizations, Wells lost a prominent place in the historical record. It took several generations before her relentless and often discomforting agitation for social justice received the appreciation it deserved, as scholars over the last twenty years gradually reestablished her place in history. Mia Bay’s lucid biography contributes enormously to this project.”—Andrew Feffer, History News Network

"Radical, uncompromising, determined, the crusading Wells and her times are vivid in this thoughtful portrait."—American History

"In the richly illustrated To Tell the Truth Freely, the historian Mia Bay vividly captures Well's legacy and life, from her childhood in Mississippi to her early career in the late nineteenth-century Memphis and her later life in Progressive-era Chicago . . . The life of Ida B. Wells and her enduring achievements are dramatically recovered in Mia Bay's To Tell the Truth Freely."—The African American Book Review

“In this remarkable book, Mia Bay understands Ida B. Wells in full—as thinker, writer, crusader, politician, and woman of the world. Finally, we have a biography worthy of one of the bravest and most influential activists in U.S. history.”—Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

"Ida B. Wells is one of America’s most important yet relatively unknown historical figures. Absorbing and insightful, To Tell the Truth Freely deftly chronicles the way in which her extraordinary life and career altered the evolution of race and democracy in late nineteenth- and early twentieth century America.”—Peniel E. Joseph, author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America

“Mia Bay’s biography of Ida B. Wells is as sharp and sassy as the woman herself. The vigilance and bravado of this dynamic black woman crusader shines through on every page. Bay’s triumphant tapestry reveals the life and times of an unsung heroine woven into battles for African-American freedom.”—Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

“At last—an eloquent, concise, yet richly detailed account of Ida B. Wells. Beautifully crafted, this book restores Wells to her rightful place in American political history by telling her story with verve and grace.”—Barbara D. Savage, author of Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion

"Mia Bay's biography of Ida B. Wells provides the reader with the rich details that are essential to viewing her as a person. This information about Wells, considered by many to have been the most influential black woman of her time, does more than help the reader revisit the life of a legend. Bay carefully lays a foundation for understanding Wells, who was born in Mississippi during the Civil War. Early in the book, the author, a Rutgers University historian, uses Wells' family stories to shed light on the lives of her parents and grandparents and introduce the reader to major influences on her development . . . Bay's use of Wells' diaries appear to be judicious, never being revealing for its own sake. Wells' private thoughts are used to help the reader understand the public choices she made. They also help demonstrate the differences between her values and those held by most other women of her time. In addition, Bay does a good job of relating the well-known story of Wells being forcibly removed from a train, the relationships she formed with those in England and the United States who helped to advance her anti-lynching campaign, and what she did and didn't have in common with others who were involved in advancing the causes of blacks and women. While the reader may recall many of the relevant facts about her life, additional bits of information in the book provide a freshness that keeps it interesting. Evidence of Wells' enormous courage and high tolerance for risk can be seen throughout the book. Bay presents Wells as someone who always knew her own mind and who accepted the risks that came with being true to herself. She may have acquired that trait from her father, Jim Wells, a man who also stood up for what he believed in. Through Bay's writing, it's not difficult to see why Wells, a diminutive woman, is considered a giant."—Wevonneda Mins, The Post and Courier (Charleston)

"Bay presents a scholarly record of the life of a brilliant political activist and early feminist, from her beginnings as the daughter of newly freed slaves in Mississippi during Reconstruction to her primary candidacy in 1930 for the Illinois Senate. The author recounts Wells's childhood in Holly Springs and the drastic changes that occurred when, at age 16, her parents died and she became the caregiver for two younger sisters. In 1883, forcefully ejected from a train several times for refusing to leave the (first class) ladies car for the (second class) smoking car, Wells sued the railroad, charging assault and discrimination, and won. The ruling was overturned two years later by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Frustrated with Jim Crow, critical of the black leadership, and horrified by lynchings and the accompanying myth of black men's hypersexuality, Wells gave up teaching and turned her energy and talent to journalism. Her association with women's groups and black organizations such as the NAACP were often fraught with controversy, and she was often at odds with black leaders. The author quotes extensively from Wells's autobiography, diaries, and articles, insightfully interpreting and occasionally correcting her facts. Black-and-white photos are included. Students interested in post-Civil War history and women's studies will find a wealth of information in this exhaustively researched biography."—Jackie Gropman, School Library Journal

"Finely honed feminist biography of an impassioned crusader for civil rights in an era of vicious racial discrimination. Ida B. Wells' significant legacy as an activist, engaged journalist and outspoken critic of Southern lynching has been obscured by her confrontational methods, notes Bay. A child of Reconstruction, Wells (1862-1931) experienced firsthand the retraction of protections for freedmen that promptly followed the infamous Compromise of 1877. She took her first public stand at age 21. Commuting by train between her home in Memphis and a schoolteaching job in the countryside, she purchased a first-class ticket that entitled her to sit in the 'ladies' car,' and refused the conductor's order to move; it took three railroad employees to drag Wells to the second-class carriage. The two lawsuits she filed against the railroad earned her character assassinations from both white and black leaders, but she was beginning to find her voice as an agitator for African-American progress and women's concerns. She became editor and owner of the Memphis newspaper Free Speech, but after an incendiary editorial asserting that the claims of rape used to justify many lynchings were obviously false, threats on her life drove Wells from the South. She lived in New York and then Chicago, where she eventually married. She took up the gauntlet against lynching as the expression of a racist ideology that defensively defined black men as 'naturally lawless and predatory.' Lecturing publicly about sex and rape at a time when such subjects were taboo, Wells was frequently excoriated, though British audiences were more welcoming and supportive. Befriended by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, instrumental in starting such organizations as the NAACP, she remained controversial and could not garner sufficient support to elevate her to national leadership. Bay's intelligent, hard-hitting study puts Wells' achievements in context and will certainly solidify the standing of this brave activist and writer."—Kirkus Reviews

"Ida B. Wells, the civil rights and anti-lynching crusader all but forgotten for most of the 20th century, has received a great deal of scholarly interest over the past 30 years. Bay adds to this scholarship by examining Wells in the context of her social and political milieu as an African-American woman in a predominantly white, male-dominated society. The sexism Wells faced within the Civil Rights Movement and the added domestic responsibilities she faced as a woman held her back from claiming her rightful place at the top of the Civil Rights hierarchy. Bay relies heavily on Wells's own autobiography (published as Crusade for Justice in 1970) and a diary that Wells kept in Memphis from 1885 to 1887 (published in book form in 1995), as well as contemporary magazine and newspaper articles . . . Recommended."—Jason Martin, Library Journal

"Bay delineates journalist and antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells's life (1862-1931) and her passionate commitment 'to a range of causes so extensive that they defy easy summary.' When her parents died in 1878, 16-year-old Wells became the head of her family, caring for her five siblings. After a brief stint teaching, she found her two callings—political activism and, more powerfully, journalism, becoming by the late 1880s 'one of the most prolific and well-known black female journalists of her day.' In 1884, she sued the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad over segregated cars; in 1889, she became part owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper. In 1892, catalyzed by the lynching of three black businessmen, she devoted herself to 'an anti-lynching campaign that would cost her the Memphis newspaper, threaten her life, and sever her ties to Memphis forever.' Bay relies heavily on Wells's published writing, especially her posthumous autobiography, Crusade for Justice, supplemented by secondary sources, making this a useful book for students."—Publishers Weekly

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"If Iola Were a Man"


As the Nineteenth Century came to a close, a young African American woman named Ida B. Wells was acclaimed "the most widely known woman of her race in the world."1 Born a slave in Civil War-ravaged Mississippi,Wells achieved freedom with emancipation, and international renown in the 1890s, when she rose to fame as a journalist, speaker, and civil rights activist who led an international crusade against lynching. She was just thirty years old when she first began her campaign to end the brutal white-on-black mob violence
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  • Mia Bay

  • Mia Bay is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University and the associate director of Rutgers's Center for Race and Ethnicity. She is also the author of The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas About White People, 1830–1925.
  • Mia Bay