“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” according to Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist, journalist, businesswoman, mother and all encompassing phenomenal woman. Wells was born a slave in July 1862, but grew up in a household with parents who escaped much of the psychological damage of slavery and who had skills.
Her father was a carpenter and her mother a cook. They lived for a while following Emancipation on the farm of their former slave owner and her paternal grandfather until he locked her father, Jim Wells, out of his carpenter’s workshop because he did not vote Democratic. Wells bought himself a set of tools, found a house to rent and moved his family off the land without saying a word to his former master.
This type of demonstration of the capacity to be free and independent helped to form the young Ida B. into the fearless woman she became later in life. Along with the example set by her father, she learned many skills from her mother, Elizabeth Wells, who was a very strict disciplinarian, who went to her children’s school quite often and made sure they stayed focused upon their school work as well as teaching them that the household maintenance was a part of their responsibilities.
Elizabeth was a very religious woman who took her children to Sunday School each week and was once awarded a commendation for perfect attendance even though they had to be there at 9 a.m.
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In 1878 there was a yellow fever outbreak in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells’ hometown, and her parents contracted the illness and died within 24 hours of one another. Of course she and her siblings were devastated. However, she did not have much time for grieving because members of the Masonic Lodge, to which her father belonged, began discussing how they would divide the children among themselves in order to provide caretaking.
There was one sister who had a major physical problem that had caused her to be partially paralyzed. The Masons’ plan was to send her to the poorhouse. Wells overheard this discussion and quickly let them know that her family was not going to be divided in that way. She said her parents “would turn over in their graves at such a thing happening to them.” She announced that she would take care of her family and that is exactly what she did. She was only 16 years old.
Her father had left them a house that was debt free and $3,000, so she had a decent financial base to build upon. It was not long before she needed to find work so she sought counsel from the Masons, who advised her to apply for a teaching job. She did and was hired. She had to put her hair up on her head and lengthened her skirts so she would look more like a schoolmarm than the schoolgirl she really should have been at that time. She did not get very good teaching placements because of her lack of training and youth, so she went to the schools assigned to her by mule and stayed for the week, returning home on the weekends. A family friend attended to her younger siblings during the week and she would take over the family upon her return. She spent her weekends cleaning, doing laundry and cooking.
The discipline and ability to stay focused that she learned from her parents stood her in good stead during this very challenging time and throughout her life as a journalist and activist as she stood against the terrorism of Jim Crow and Jane Crow which manifested itself in many ways but used lynching as its main weapon of control.
Wells is a prophetic witness testifying to the necessity to stay vigilant and to be fearless. She calls to all of us who love and seek liberation.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.