Although the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago was only a few months old, it managed to scrape together the money to send a representative to Washington, D.C., to march in the 1913 women’s parade, which would come to be regarded as a milestone in the history of the 19th Amendment.  

Chosen for the honor was Ida Wells-Barnett, the club’s founder and the fearless African-American journalist who had made a name for herself as a reporter investigating lynching in the deep South. Wells-Barnett had taken up residence in Chicago after things got too hot for her in Memphis.

Organized by suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the parade took place the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration—it was a protest against Wilson who was not yet willing to accept women’s suffrage. Paul, who had spent time in England learning disruptive strategies from militant suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and others, later bedeviled Wilson by posting Silent Sentinels, their term for suffragists who protested silently, in front of the White House.  

“Either I march with you or not at all,” Wells-Barnett said.

On March 13, there were 8,000 marchers, floats, women mounted on horses, bands, and even tableaux featuring allegorical characters on the steps of the U.S. Treasury Building. As the Illinois delegation began preparing to march, word came down: the march was to be racially segregated, as it was feared that Southern women might otherwise refuse to march. The African-American suffragists would be allowed to bring up the rear, after the parade was almost ended. Virginia Brooks and Belle Squire, two white suffragists associated with Chicago’s Alpha Club, protested. “If women of other states lack moral courage,” Brooks is quoted as saying in Susan Ware’s book Why They Marched, “we should show them that we are not afraid of public opinion. We should stand by our principles. If we do not the parade will be a farce.” 

Wells-Barnett was equally adamant against allowing the parade to be segregated and to be separated from her fellow marchers from Illinois: “Either I go with you or not at all,” she said. “I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.”

It appeared that Wells-Barnett had either withdrawn from the march or submitted to going last as the Illinois delegation stepped forward to march down Pennsylvania Avenue. Those who assumed she was at the back of the parade, walking with the other black women, however, didn’t know Ida Wells-Barnett. Out of nowhere, Wells-Barnett emerged from the crowd and took her rightful place beside Belle Squire. The Chicago-Tribune featured a photo of the two women marching together a few days later.

Those who knew Wells-Barnett were not surprised. Few women (or men) had more courage than Wells-Barnett. Courage was part of her family heritage. Ida Wells was born July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the daughter of slaves (and herself briefly a slave). Wells-Barnett biographer, Paula Giddings, tells the story about Wells’ father, a skilled carpenter. After emancipation, James Wells was told by a white employer not to vote for Republican candidates. He did anyway, and, when he lost his job, simply went to town and bought a new set of tools and set up in business for himself. He went on to become a trustee of what became Rust College, a historically black college in Holly Springs. Ida lost both her parents in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 when she was sixteen. She assumed responsibility for the five surviving of the eight Wells children.  

“The psychological idea that I came across that did seem to fit her best, was that after the death of her parents, you know, Wells prays over her anger,” biographer Giddings told an NPR interviewer. “She is very self conscious. This is another interesting thing about her, but she worked so hard to turn that anger into something that is positive, and she does have a sense of injustice, social injustice, that stays with her, but I think the combination of the history that is going on, of her life experiences and of her own persona, creates this incredible courageous being.”

In an 1884 incident that anticipated Rosa Parks in 1955, Wells-Barnett refused to accede to a conductor’s demand that she give up first-class ticket.

After her parents’ deaths, Wells found work in Memphis, Tenn., as a teacher and moved the family there. Wells studied in the summer at Fisk College in Nashville and Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis, two historically black colleges. (She had been expelled from Rush College after quarreling with the president.) In an 1884 incident that anticipated Rosa Parks’ 1955 refusal to move to the back of the bus, Wells refused to accede to a conductor’s demand that she give up first-class ticket, for which she had paid, on a Chesapeake & Ohio train so that a white woman could have the seat. Wells was dragged out of the car. Wells didn’t just let it drop. She penned a story for an African-American newspaper and enlisted a lawyer.  Wells won the first round in a local circuit court, but the railroad appealed to the state Supreme Court and won there. 

Wells became drawn to journalism, a good thing, as she lost her teaching job after criticizing how schools for black youths were operated. She held a number of editorial jobs with black news outlets before becoming, in 1889, part owner of a newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight, sponsored by the Memphis’ Beale Street Baptist Church, which had been organized by freed slaves.

Wells devoted her career to the unfairness of Jim Crow laws and investigating lynching. Lynching became her thrust after an 1892 lynching of three black men in Memphis. Wells-Barnett wrote a pamphlet headlined Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, in which she maintained that the men had been murdered for economic reasons. They were shop owners whose businesses were competing with white-owned businesses. She did extensive reporting, often visiting the sites of lynching, and interviewing people. 

Wells-Barnett came to the conclusion that the claim that black men were lynched because they had raped white women was often a cover. On the basis of her reporting, Wells came to the conclusion that many of these supposed rapes were actually consensual sex. This was deeply shocking to white sensibilities at the time, and Wells faced death threats. “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give,” she once said.

It was time to leave Memphis. Wells moved to Chicago, where she continued her career as a crusading journalist. She continued to write and speak about lynching and turned her attention towards broader civil rights issues, in 1893, joining Frederick Douglass in boycotting the World’s Columbian Exposition. They charged that it excluded the achievements of African-Americans. She made two speaking tours to Britain to speak out about lynching. She wrote about her experiences in England for the Daily-Inter-Ocean, a Republican newspaper that, unlike the city’s leading Democratic newspapers, adopted an anti-lynching stand. She may have been the first black woman to be paid to write for a white-owned newspaper. 

The Alpha Suffrage Club became an important Chicago institution.

In 1895, Wells had married another journalist, Ferdinand Lee Barnett, founder of The Chicago Conservator, Chicago’s first black newspaper, and the third African-American lawyer to qualify as a member of the Illinois bar association. The Barnetts had four children, who joined his two from a previous marriage (his first wife died). Susan B. Anthony, who was miffed when her suffragist colleagues married—she felt it hindered their ability to throw themselves heart and soul into working for the cause—claimed that Wells-Barnett was sometimes “distracted” by the challenge of what today we would call work-life balance.

Wells-Barnett had been a member of the Illinois Women’s Suffrage Association before she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, which she saw as a vehicle for preparing black women in the Chicago area to vote. Illinois was a trendsetter, granting women the right to vote before the 19th Amendment. The Illinois Equal Suffrage Act, for which Wells-Barnett had campaigned, was passed in June of 1913. It was not full-fledged suffrage: women could vote in presidential elections, for mayor and other local jobs, but not for governor or seats in Congress. There were separate ballot boxes for a while. 

However, it was hailed as a great move forward. Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association said that because of the Illinois vote “suffrage sentiment doubled over night.” There was no opposition when Wells-Barnett marched in the Chicago parade to celebrate the act. Illinois, by the way, would go on to become the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment. 

The Alpha Suffrage Club became an important Chicago institution. It developed a block-by-block canvassing system to register black women to vote, adding thousands to the voting rolls, and worked for specific candidates. The Alpha Club was instrumental in the election to Congress of Oscar De Priest, a Republican, the first African American elected to serve in Congress in the twentieth century. Why They Marched author Susan Ware said that women like Wells-Barnett “fervently believed that political engagement was a key tool for African American women to improve conditions for their communities and for their race. As a flier for an Alpha Suffrage Club meeting stated, ‘If the colored women do not take advantage of the franchise they may only blame themselves when they are left out of everything.’” 

The Illinois Equal Suffrage Act, for which Wells-Barnett had campaigned, was passed in June of 1913.

Wells-Barnett continued to be a force in Illinois politics. She campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover in 1918 and made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1930. Ida Wells-Barnett was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, a civil rights organization, and was on hand in Niagara Falls when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded. Some consider it a slight that she was not listed as a founder.  

Full of honors, Ida Wells-Barnett died March 25, 1931, at the age of 68, in Chicago. She and her husband share a tombstone with the epitaph “Crusaders for Justice,” a play on the title of her autobiography. The National Association of Black Journalists offers an annual award named in her honor, a fitting memorial for a woman who believed in the power of information and was willing to risk her life to bring it to the public.