Black History Month: Who is journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett & what’s her connection to Jacksonville?

Wells-Barnett, who was investigative journalist, is known for documenting lynchings of African Americans in 20th century

Before social media and live streaming, journalism was captured with a pen and paper, and printed in the local newspaper.

Among those 20th century journalists was Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who took on the task of documenting the lynchings of African Americans throughout the country in “Red Record: Lynchings in the United States” and “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.”

She traced 241 lynchings.

“Ida had a price put on her head in Memphis,” said Tiana Ferrell, Wells-Barnett’s great-granddaughter. “She was run out of the city of Memphis for telling the truth there.”

Ferrell is one of many family members keeping history alive. She recalls the many death threats her great great-grandmother endured.

“They burned her newspaper office, and now there is a marker there on Beale Street, but they burned down her office,” Ferrell said. “(They’d say) ‘We want you alive or dead. If you come back to Memphis, you are definitely going to be dead.’”

Wells-Barnett was born in Mississippi and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, after her parents died and moved to Chicago, Illinois, following death threats.

Among the journals of her grandmother is a family heirloom, an early 20th century Rosenthal Porcelain Co. china. It’s been passed down from one generation to the next, and it now belongs to Ferrell.

Tiana Ferrell sits with the Rosenthal Porcelain Co. china. (
Closeup of the Rosenthal Porcelain Co. china. (

“Ida B. Wells had some Rosenthal china that she used to entertain politicians, dignitaries, other freedom fighters when they would visit her home,” Ferrell said.

Among the history makers, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Jacksonville’s very own civil rights activist, A. Phillip Randolph, each met with Wells-Barnett for activism. In a book written by Alfreda Duster, Wells-Barnett’s daughter, she recalled:

“I can remember A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owens when they started the Messenger and my mother’s support of them.”

Ferrell says her great-great-grandmother was a courageous journalist who shed light on the hatred and racism forced upon innocent people. Ferrell hopes Wells-Barnett’s courage inspires others.

“She wasn’t superhuman, she was an ordinary girl from Holly Springs, Mississippi, and so are all of us,” Ferrell said. “We all have the ability to change the world if you are ready, if you want to. Aspire to be the best you, we all have it in us.”

Aside from journalism and activism, Wells-Barnett also sued the Chesapeake, Ohio, railroad and won. Ferrell has written a play to highlight the story. The family has also created the Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation in her honor.

About the Author:

Veteran journalist and Emmy Award winning anchor