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Ciara O'Rourke
By Ciara O'Rourke August 6, 2019

Fact-checking the claim that Ida B. Wells was ignored because she was a Republican

A recent Facebook post touts the activism and accomplishments of Ida B. Wells, a black investigative journalist who reported on lynchings in the United States during the 1800s. But the celebration turns accusatory as the July 19 post suggests she was ignored because of her political beliefs.  

"Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat 71 years before Rosa Parks did," the post says. "At age 33, she owned the first African American newspaper in Chicago, the Chicago Conservator. Why do you never hear about her? Because she was a Republican."

This post, which was shared more than 2,300 times within a week, was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

Some details in the post are accurate but the closing allegation that she has been snubbed because she was a Republican is wrong. Here’s what you need to know.

Who was Ida B. Wells?

Wells was born in Mississippi in 1862 and grew up during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. 

She was 30 years old and working as a newspaper editor in Memphis when she started reporting on lynchings in the South. Her work, which relied on documents and included eye-witness interviews, challenged the notion that black men were rapists. When her work ran in The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a newspaper she co-owned, she faced death threats and, in 1892, the offices of her newspaper were destroyed by a mob.

In 1884 — 71 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in 1955 —  railroad workers forcibly removed Wells from a train traveling from Memphis to Woodstock, Tenn., after she refused to leave a car reserved for white women.

Wells moved to Chicago in the early 1890s. In 1895, she married Ferdinand L. Barnett, the editor of the Chicago Conservator, the city’s first African American newspaper. Paula Giddings writes in her book, "A Sword Among Lions," that Wells took majority ownership of that paper around the time of her wedding, when she was 33 going on 34.

What were her politics?

Wells’ father, James Wells, advocated for the rights of newly freed black people and worked with the Republican Party during Reconstruction, the Washington Post reported. Both of her parents were active in the Republican Party, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Living in Chicago, Ida Wells and her husband were politically loyal to Charles S. Deneen, a leading Republican in Illinois, the introduction of Wells’ autobiography, "Crusade for Justice," says. As state’s attorney, Deneen appointed Barnett assistant state’s attorney, and he was the first black man to hold that position.  

When Ida Wells later ran for Illinois State Senate (and lost) in 1930, she ran as an independent

Daphene R. McFerren, executive director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis, shared with PolitiFact an 1885 letter Wells wrote to the New York Freeman that underscores this point. 

"I am not a Democrat," Wells wrote, "because the Democrats considered me a chattel and possibly might have always so considered me, because their record from the beginning has been inimical to my interests. I am not a Republican, because, after they — as a party measure and an inevitable result of the war — had ‘given the Negro his freedom’ and the ballot box following, all through their reign — while advocating the doctrine of the Federal Government’s right to protecting her citizens — they suffered the crimes against the Negro, that have made the South notorious, to go unpunished and almost unnoticed and turned them over to the tender mercies of the South." 

She goes on to say "it is not in favor, nor against the interest of either party that I write this. Let a man be Democrat, Republican or Independent as his judgment dictates, if he is obeying honest and intelligent convictions." 

Women were not granted the right to vote until about a decade before Wells’ death in 1931, but  McFerren said, "what black person wasn’t a Republican after the Civil War?"

The Republican Party was then the party of President Abraham Lincoln, and it was unheard of for a black person to be a Democrat from 1920 to about the 1940s, she said. That shifted during the 1950s and 60s as black people starting voting for Democrats, she said, and the historical context matters. 

"To say a black person is a Republican of her era is a compliment, it has no relationship to how we understand Republicans today," McFerren said. "Labeling her as a Republican when they’re trying to use her in a contemporary sense is ridiculous." 

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"Of course she was a Republican!" Theodore Karamanski, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, told us. But, he added, "the GOP was at that time the party of Lincoln NOT the party of Trump or even Reagan. Most African Americans were Republicans in the 1940s. The Republican Party switched its policies regarding African Americans with the Democrats in the 1960s."

Has she been ignored? 

Last year, the New York Times ran a belated obituary for Wells. That’s because since 1851, a few years before Wells was born, the newspaper’s obituary pages were dominated by news of the deaths of white men. The paper in 2018 set out to rectify the record in an ongoing project called "Overlooked," which seeks to recognize the legacies of other remarkable people in its obituary pages. 

"Wells is considered by historians to have been the most famous black woman in the United States during her lifetime," the New York Times obit says, "even as she was dogged by prejudice, a disease infecting Americans from coast to coast. She pioneered reporting techniques that remain central tenets of modern journalism. And as a former slave who stood less than five feet tall, she took on structural racism more than half a century before her strategies were repurposed, often without crediting her, during the 1960s civil rights movement." 

She organized economic boycotts before civil rights activists who were mostly men were credited with the tactic’s success, according to the Times. As she aged, her influence waned while activists like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois rose in prominence. 

Historian John Hope Franklin wrote in the foreword of Wells’ memoir that "for more than 40 years, Ida B. Wells was one of the most fearless and one of the most respected women in the United States." 

In June 2018, though, the Washington Post reported that her pioneering work was "all but unrecognized in (Chicago), which has no shortage of statues and monuments to leading white men." But, the Post said, "Wells is enjoying fresh attention." Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to build a monument to Wells there. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., features a selection of quotes and a stone inscribed with her name. The Ida B. Wells Legacy Committee was formed to support the candidacies of black women. This year, a major downtown thoroughfare in Chicago was renamed after Wells

Back in 1991, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about Wells that called her an "inspiration." But in 2018, the Guardian called her "the unsung heroine of the civil rights movement."

Responding to a Twitter account that tweeted the same image that was used in the Facebook post, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times reporter and co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society, which seeks to increase the ranks and influence of journalists of color doing investigative work, said: "We know who the hell she is."

"Y’all need to stop this," Hannah-Jones tweeted in February 2018. "If the modern Republican Party wants to adopt the platform it had during Ida B. Wells’s time — like sweeping civil rights legislation, reparations — then every black American would be Republican again. Stop being dumb."

Later that year, she responded to another Twitter account that said Wells didn’t get the credit she deserved for refusing to give up her train seat because she was a conservative Republican. 

"Ida B. Wells was a conservative Republican," Hannah-Jones said. "I think I almost choked on this one. The Republicans at the time of Ida B. Wells were radically liberal, pushing for massive expansion of govt in the protection of black civil rights."

"She didn’t ‘get credit,’" Hannah-Jones said, "because white, racist conservatives burned her newspaper down when she exposed the lie of why black men were lynched and then across the South white conservatives systematically implemented black codes to force black people back in to quasi-slavery."

Today, McFerren said, Wells is "celebrated everywhere," and she’s enjoyed a renaissance in the past several years. 

Karamanski told us that if you haven’t heard of Ida B. Wells, "it is because you have been willfully ignorant of Chicago history, women’s history, and African American history. It is NOT because she was Republican."

Our ruling

The Facebook post gets these things right: Wells refused to give up her seat 71 years before Rosa Parks did, and she owned the first African American newspaper in Chicago in her early 30s.

But the post also said that people never hear about Ida B. Wells because she was a Republican. That’s not true. 

Wells ran for a seat in the Illinois Senate as an independent but she was the child of Republicans and supported Republicans. African Americans were largely partial to the Republican Party during Reconstruction. Historians note it’s not the Republican Party of today, though it bears the same name. 

Though Wells may not have received enough credit for her journalism and activism through much of history, the record shows that she hasn’t been invisible. When she was overshadowed at points in history, it doesn’t appear that it was due to her political affiliation but rather that she was writing in detail about lynching at a time when the African American voice and experience, and especially the African American female voice and experience, was devalued in a society dominated by white men. Today, Wells has several namesakes and markers to her legacy. McFerren suspects she gets the most attention of her contemporaries of the 1800s.

We rate this Facebook post as Half True.

Correction, Aug. 7, 2019: The husband of Ida B. Wells, Ferdinand Barnett, was appointed assistant state's attorney in Illinois. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that her father, James Wells, was appointed.

Our Sources

Facebook post, July 19, 2019

The New York Times, Ida B. Wells obituary, 2018

The New York Times, Booker T. Washington obituary, Nov. 15, 1915

The New York Times, W.E.B. DuBois obituary, Aug. 28, 1963, "Rosa Parks," No. 9, 2009

The Washington Post, "‘You can’t just gloss over this history’: The movement to honor Ida B. Wells gains momentum," June 18, 2018

The Washington Post, "‘Fearless’ Ida B. Wells honored by new lynching museum for fighting racial terrorism," April 26, 2018 

Ida B. Wells Society, "Our namesake," visited July 26, 2019

Chicago Tribune, "Ida B. Wells still an inspiration," Nov. 15, 1991

National Museum of African American History and Culture, "Dealing and responding to Jim Crow," visited July 26, 2019

Nikole Hannah-Jones tweet, Feb. 8, 2018

Nikole Hannah-Jones tweet, July 31, 2018

"Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells," 1970

The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, "Ida B. Wells Documentary overview," visited July 26, 2019

The Guardian, "Ida B Wells: the unsung heroine of the civil rights movement," April 27, 2018

Chicago Tribune, "With Congress Parkway now renamed Ida B. Wells Drive, Chicago has its first major street named for a black woman," Feb. 11, 2019

"The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader," Ida B. Wells, 2014

Interview with Daphene R. McFerren, executive director, The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, The University of Memphis, July 26, 2019

Interview with Nathaniel C. Ball, media and programs coordinator, The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, The University of Memphis, July 26, 2019

Email interview with Theodore Karamanski, public history graduate director, Loyola University Chicago, July 26, 2019


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