Patricia A. Schechter. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform 1880-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 386 pp.
Patricia A. Schechter. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930. Gender and American Culture Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. x + 386 pp. $23.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4965-1.
Reviewed by Wanda A. Hendricks (University of South Carolina)
Published on H-SHGAPE (March, 2002)
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was one of the most important figures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Following a recent trend to illuminate the multifaceted and complex realities of African American women^Òs lives, Patricia A. Schechter has written a provocative and significant biographical account of Wells-Barnett^Òs experiences as an African American woman and a reformer from 1880 until 1930.
Wells-Barnett, according to Schechter, was led as much by her religious beliefs as her devotion to racial uplift. Her successes in the anti-lynching campaign, the reform movement and the black women^Òs club movement stemmed from a religious theology. She proved to be a powerful tool for voicing the needs and concerns of the disfranchised and the invisible during the last decades of the nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth century. By the end of her career, however, the anti-lynching campaign transferred from the world of female reform to the domain of the male-dominated National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the reform movement shifted from one of race work and self help to professionalization and local and state control, and the club movement evolved into a middle-class bourgeois base for working within the confines of institutional structures.
A native of Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells-Barnett was born before the Civil War ended to devoutly religious parents who instilled an intense race consciousness in her. She emulated her parents' commitments to religion and racial uplift by merging the two concepts and making them the essence of her activism. For her, social, political and economic justice were not simply civil rights; rather they were intrinsic to the basic tenets of Christian ideals, righteousness and self identity. Religious parables provided the foundation of many of her arguments, shaping the direction of her written and oratorical rhetoric for nearly forty years. The denial of black rights, the lynching of black men and the rape of black women were immoral acts that contradicted notions of civilized behavior and Christian values.
Orphaned at age sixteen, she faced the burden of caring for her siblings after the death of her parents in a yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Mississippi. Seeking economic opportunity, she migrated to Memphis, Tennessee, at the height of the solidification of white hegemony in post Reconstruction South. Under this oppressive regime, she developed her unique style of challenging authority, engaging in debate and agitating for change. In the chapter aptly entitled, "Coming of Age in Memphis," Schechter argues that Wells constructed an identity that simultaneously revealed a young lady coming into adulthood during the Victorian Era and an outspoken, defiant, critic that railed against black acquiescence and white racism. Ambivalent about marriage but longing for suitors, she struggled to reconcile her "feminine" role as a woman and her "masculine" desires in the public arena. Against the backdrop of the Victorian notions of womanhood, Wells-Barnett^Òs activism blurred the lines between male and female public space, threatening the social and political domain and authority of men. Refusing to adopt the traditional restrictive role assigned to black women, she often stepped outside those boundaries, creating conflict between her, black and white men, and black and white women.
The association with J. L. Fleming, an editor, and Taylor Nightingale, a minister, was a calculated one that furnished her with the protective shield of masculinity. The publication of the Free Speech and Headlight provided a vehicle to voice her opinions and ideas. Railing against black acquiescence to Jim Crow and the escalation of white racism, discrimination and violence, she found the Speech and Headlight to be a powerful tool. But the reality of white patriarchy limited Wells-Barnett^Òs voice. When three black men were lynched and she attacked the ideal of white womanhood, she could not be insulated from the violent domination of white men. The destruction of her newspaper office and the threats on her life forced her into exile. Reveling in and exposing the brutality of the southern white mind, Wells claimed the identity of "Exiled." Schechter notes that the use of the term garnered attention and provided the weapon of Well-Barnett, as she was "identifying herself as outcast or fugitive from the United States" (p. 23).
Forced from her home, Wells-Barnett joined the thousands of African Americans who migrated out of the South. Seeking employment and refuge, she joined forces with editor Timothy Thomas Fortune at the New York Age, becoming the leading expert on southern lynching. Catapulted to prominence with two trips to England and her pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World^Òs Columbian Exposition, she internationalized the plight of African Americans in the United States. Finally settling in Chicago, she married, in her early thirties, Ferdinand Barnett, a progressive activist, lawyer and editor of the Chicago Conservator. Refusing to relinquish her identity, she hyphenated her name, shared ownership of the Conservator and combined childbearing with public activism.
She established her local and national identity as a clubwoman with the creation of the Ida B. Wells Club, the Alpha Suffrage Club and involvement in the National Association of Colored Women, and her identity as a defender of the race with the establishment of the Negro Fellowship League and involvement with the Afro-American Council and the NAACP.
The historical changes produced by migration, urbanization and war challenged Wells-Barnett. Individual female-based initiatives, so prevalent in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the early decade of the twentieth century that grew outside of organizational structures, lost their funding, rank and significance. Local governments severed their political clout and philanthropists financially backed the newly formed NAACP and Urban League. As a result of the shift, Wells-Barnett^Òs struggling Negro Fellowship League, a settlement that primarily focused on the uplift of black young men, succumbed to closure in 1920. The shortage of sustained philanthropic funding and Wells-Barnett^Òs lack of political clout were contributing factors. The war and the rise of black protest "accented masculinity" (p. 135), effectively highlighting the efforts of male dominated organizations. Even the NACW, constrained by political and economic forces, acceded to the professionalization and institutionalization of reform by cooperating with social agencies rather than encouraging individual voluntary reform. A decade before her death, Wells-Barnett was marginalized, isolated, and sometimes maligned.
Characterized as a perennial outsider, Wells-Barnett constantly wrestled with institutional barriers, male hegemony, and racism. Guided by a combination of a religious gender ideology, Wells-Barnett^Òs life exemplified the pitfalls that the intersections of race, gender, ideals and religion entail. With great insight, Schechter has convincingly illuminated the complications, the complexities and the conflicts that shaped Wells-Barnett^Òs life. This book is an excellent addition to the growing body of literature on the lives of African American women.
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Schechter, Patricia A., Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930.
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