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Ida B. Wells and Sixth-Grace Chicago

June 15, 2016
Ida B. Wells, via Wikimedia Commons

After a distinguished and peripatetic career as a journalist, activist, and lecturer, Ida B. Wells--who had urged black families to keep a Winchester rifle by the front door--put down roots in Chicago and became a Presbyterian.

Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, July 16, 1862; her family fled for Memphis following an outbreak of yellow fever. Her career as a champion of civil rights began in 1884 when she sued the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which had forced her to leave her seat in first class, winning in the lower courts and losing on appeal. She taught elementary school in Memphis and contributed articles to the Washington D.C. Evening Star and the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, often under the pseudonym Iola. After the 1889 lynching of three of her friends--Thomas Moss, Will Stewart, and Calvin McDowell--Wells undertook a systematic investigation of lynching in the South. In 1892 she published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, which, by elucidating the economic basis of white violence, rebutted the claims of many white Southerners that lynching was a response to African American men's depredations of white women. Wells found that as white males felt economically marginalized, and were put into competition with African Americans, they often reacted with mob violence. The scale of Southern murders of black men led Wells to advocate full-bore self-defense:

The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that 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. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. (Chapter 6: "Self Help")

In 1893, Wells traveled to Chicago to protest the exclusion of African Americans from the World's Columbian Exposition. She and Frederick Douglass produced the pamphlet, "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition," and handed out copies to fairgoers. In 1895, she married her longtime lawyer Ferdinand Barnett; after travel abroad delivering lectures against lynching, Wells-Barnett returned to Chicago, finding a spiritual home at Grace Presbyterian Church, at 3600 South Vincennes Avenue in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood. Wells would later write that she sought "a church home in which to rear my children."

That I was not a Presbyterian by doctrine, but since all Christian denominations agreed on a standard of conduct and right living it seemed to me to matter very little what name we bore. I told them that if they would accept me with that confession of faith I would like to come in. They did accept me and I and my two daughters united with the church. Shortly after I was asked to accept the position of teacher of the men's Bible class by the members themselves. I thus began that which to me was one of the most delightful periods of my life in Chicago. (page 298)

Sixth Presbyterian Church (Chicago, Ill.) Sunday School annual, 1878. RG 425, Congregational vertical file. Sixth was a predecessor to today's Sixth-Grace Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

Grace Presbyterian Church was organized in 1888 by African American Presbyterians under the guidance of Moses Jackson, who would serve as its pastor for the next forty years. During the Great Migration, Grace was a hub for African American civic, literary, artistic, and political activity, renowned for its choir and lecture series. Wells gave lectures and taught Sunday School at Grace, and, along with Richard T. Greener, organized a study group on African American history. In 1905, Wells helped organize the Frederick Douglass Center, a church-based literary society aimed at uniting, in the words of Christopher Robert Reed, "the white middle class and the black middling class."

The Presbyterian habit of gathering and discernment dovetailed with Wells's ongoing defense of African American lives. Following white riots in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, according to her autobiography, Wells walked to church, noting that her fellow congregants were either unaware of or untroubled by the violence in the capital:

I do not remember what the lesson was about that Sunday, but when I came to myself I found I had given vent to a passionate denunciation of the apathy of our people over this terrible thing. I told those young men that we should be stirring ourselves to see what could be done. When one of them asked, "What can we do about it?" I replied that they could at least get together and ask themselves that question. The fact that nobody seemed worried was as terrible a thing as the riot itself. (page 299)

Her class of 30 young men ultimately organized as the Negro Fellowship League, and by 1910 were operating a study center from a rented space. Over the next ten years, Wells and her husband developed the Negro Fellowship League into a boarding space for new African American migrants to Chicago, who were barred from Protestant settlement houses, and as a legal clearinghouse for black men who were in need of counsel, falsely accused or ill-represented by white lawyers.

In her later years, Wells turned to writing her autobiography, published posthumously as Crusade for Justice. The Chicago Defender remembered her as "elegant, striking [...] regal though somewhat intolerant and impulsive." Even in death Wells refused to accede to discrimination; she was buried in the South Side's whites-only Oak Woods Cemetery, which would at last be integrated in 1963.

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