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REFLECTIONS | Black Sheroes: Ida B. Wells

The Memphis Diary

by Lindsey Norward

The Reflections of Black Sheroes series is devoted to highlighting the legacy of Black women’s diary and journal writing throughout the Diaspora. We bring light to the experiences that Black women have had in their journeys to becoming trailblazers; the trials and tribulations, the celebrations and triumphs, and the nuances and complexities around their identities.

Each provides a glimpse into their private lives, their vulnerabilities and reflections providing a larger picture of the public and courageous lives they led. In this first installment, we explore The Memphis Diary by Ida B. Wells.


(Art credit: Ida B. Wells, a digital collage by JustKeebs)

It was 1882 when a 20-years-old Ida B. Wells moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Originally born and raised in Holly Springs, a small town in Mississippi, her aunt invited Wells and her two younger sisters to move forty miles to the city. In becoming one of the most groundbreaking investigative journalists in history, Memphis would shape Wells’ journey. At the beginning of her young adult life, she would be attracted by its bustling streets and bright lights, finding work as a teacher in nearby Woodstock. She would become involved in various social groups throughout the city. And she would get her start as a journalist while reckoning with deep racial disparities within its limits, nationwide. 

Yet Wells’ development into a public figure would not come with ease. For a portion of her time in Memphis, a diary she kept would evidence professional, financial, and personal problems–internal and external. Published over a century after Wells arrived in the city, The Memphis Diary is a collection that includes her 1885-1887 diary in Memphis; her 1893 travel journal; and her 1930 diary. Though readers are most familiar with the valiant voice in her anti-lynching pamphlets or the authoritative tone of her autobiography, the diary may give the most profound insight into her life. What can Ida B. Wells’ private writings teach us about the famous figure we have come to know and admire?

Wells was, by all accounts, an independent woman. Born into slavery, she was the first of eight children, her parents Elizabeth and James becoming involved in Reconstruction politics upon emancipation. Greatly inspired by their emphasis on the importance of education, Wells enrolled in Rust College, a historically black college in Mississippi. Tragedy struck in 1878 when, at the age of 16, a yellow fever epidemic fatally claimed both of her parents and her infant brother. To keep her family together, Wells took up teaching jobs around the area, adamant against their separation into foster homes. By the time she leaves for Memphis eight years later, she has developed a maturity and thick skin. Her diary allowed her to talk through her circumstances in an open way, a voice rarely revealed after her rise to becoming a bold activist.

The Memphis Diary certainly tells us that when she begins to write at 24-years-old, she is undergoing a difficult time. The intimate details of her day-to-day life show that she struggles to feel fulfilled in her position as an educator, to find a meaningful romantic relationship, and to manage her finances. She describes the frustrations she feels in keeping her students interested in their lessons, as well as the disenchantment she feels with her various potential suitors. She writes in January 1886: “I will not begin at this late day by doing that that my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak, deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge”. She finds difficulty maintaining friendships, as well, writing “I have not kept the friends I have won, but will try from this on”.  Her activities are largely outdoors, and her fast-paced lifestyle makes for ear infections, common colds, and a horseback riding injury. Despite her activity, she finds herself falling into bouts of depression. Writing reminders to herself as well as making lists, Wells is as much a thinker as a doer. 

Wells refers later in her diary of an experience in 1883 in which a white train conductor ordered her to give up her seat in a first-class car. After refusing, the conductor tried to force her to move to the smoking car where Blacks were expected to stay, already crowded with passengers. She successfully sued the railroad company and it would serve as one of her jump starts to journalism, which soon saw Wells writing an article about her experience for a local black newspaper. When the Tennessee Supreme Court later reversed the ruling, she would express her stark disappointment:


“I have firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now if it were possible would gather my race in my arms and fly far away with them..”–Wells, April 11, 1887


Perhaps what we learn most about Wells in The Memphis Diary is the utter complexity of her being an unconventional character. Even though she disdains flattering femininity, she questions her differing attitudes as if the problem comes from within. Wells writes that she is “an anomaly to [herself] as well as to others”. Filled with self-doubt, she asks, in the wake of her grandmother’s death in March 1887, “what kind of a creature will I eventually become?”. 

Famously, Ida B. Wells said “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them”. Wells posthumously teaches us not only of the significance of uncovering truth, but in allowing oneself to defy typical roles that society continuously casts upon us. Her overwhelming desire not to be married, to find freedom outside of her role as a caretaker, to find footing in a male-dominated field, positions itself closely with her bold charge against racial violence. For many of us, she might be more familiar in her diary as an ordinary person surmounting internal propositions. Yet her bravery and vulnerability are intertwined; in both she exhibits her ability to be fearless and self-determined, whether it be as a crusader or as a fierce thinker. 

Two years after her last entry in her 1880s diary, she became co-owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Highlight, her journalism career taking off. In 1892, a lynch mob murdered three of her friends who managed and owned a grocery store following circumstances around a white competitor’s resentments. Equally traumatized and motivated, Wells began investigating racial violence across the country, launching the anti-lynching crusade that she would become known for. She would go on to publish Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record, examining many accounts of lynchings she concluded were dredged in racist politics.

In the Spring of 1892, an angry mob of whites burned down her newspaper office in Memphis while she was away. Consequently, Wells would not return, making a home for herself in New York and continuing to spread her message of racial justice.

Wells would go on to co-found the National Association of Colored Women, the Afro-American Council, and the NAACP. Her work would timelessly live on after her death in 1931. The Memphis Diary almost predicts her widespread activism and impact, her tenacity evident throughout its pages. 

Today, we remember Ida B. Wells–a civil rights icon, a courageous woman, and a thoughtful journalist and diarist, on a mission to write for sheer justice as well as for self-actualization. 

Lindsey Norward is a Philadelphia-based journalist, researcher, and storyteller, who writes primarily about history and culture in America. Having recently completed her graduate studies in Global Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University, where she was a MacCracken Fellow, Lindsey joins MoCADA as the Social Media and Digital Editorial Associate. Her responsibilities include research, writing, and editing stories that connect the shared values within Black communities worldwide to expand and uplift the core narrative of the African diaspora. 


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