The Memphis Diaries of Ida B. Wells ed. by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

What were famous people like, before they became legends? There's something in us that wants to know. Movie theatres will often show high school graduation pictures of movie stars and ask, "Can you recognize this person?" Well, The Memphis Diaries of Ida B. Wells feeds the same curious urge.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) is chiefly known for her work as a journalist and an editor, and for the work she did in shedding light on the practice of lynching in the South as a means of political intimidation and repression. She also was prominent in the women’s movement, especially in the area of women’s suffrage. She was known as a bold and eloquent voice both on the lecture circuit and in her editorials for human rights.

She was born in Holly Springs, MS a half-year before Abraham Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father was a carpenter, her mother a cook. Both were still enslaved at the time of Ida’s birth. Her father worked hard for the rights of African-Americans in the years following the Civil War. Ida Wells was groomed to take a leadership role in the African-American community and was sent to Rust College. She never completed her degree because of her outspokenness which brought her into conflict with the school administration. In her early 20s, she set out for Memphis, where conditions for African-Americans were better than in rural Mississippi. There she taught school for a few years. Though she had been trained to be a teacher, she never felt she had the chance to reach her intellectual potential, and her temperament was ill-suited to the classroom and to school politics.

This diary was kept by her during her years as a teacher in Memphis (1885-1887). It was not intended for publication, and it lacks the polish that Ms. Wells’ published work has. Mary Helen Washington in the Foreword, notes: “Every woman who has ever kept a diary knows that women write in diaries because things are not going right.” And this diary does show Ida Wells dissatisfied (mostly) with her life. Many of the entries focus on the day-to-day troubles of making ends meet. Many entries reflect the typical concerns of a young woman (albeit, a talented and vocal woman) in her mid-twenties in the 19th c. For many women, marriage was the goal, and Ida sees that as a key goal for herself as well. But she is beset by two difficulties – she is very attractive and so attracts a lot of male interest, but she is very much a woman impatient with the game of love. She has definite ideas on the issues of her day, and her directness and high standards make her unwilling to settle on people who are intellectually not up to par. She found poseurs especially tough to take, and takes to task ministers and other leaders whom she feels lack intellectual or spiritual depth.

She had a deep and abiding interest in the arts, especially in theater and opera, though one entry has her resolved to keep that impulse in check, following some critical remarks from Black leaders – the theatre had an unsavory reputation in the 19th c. She was involved in some amateur theatrical efforts, and in recitations (some of which may have led to her later successes as a public speaker) and she often went to see professional theater and opera companies when they came to Memphis.

A lot of her entries deal with purely personal matters – after all, she had not yet embraced the cause and profession that would make her famous. But there are hints of later concerns: she speaks of the educational disadvantages of African-American youngsters in a segregated society (Memphis may have been far better than rural Mississippi, but it still had segregated schools with far inferior equipment and physical plants for blacks than for whites); and she speaks movingly about a couple of lynchings.

In looking at a person’s diary as published, one encounters problems peculiar to this literary form. One must wonder, if the work was intended for publication, just how much revision took place. In a case like this, where publication was not intended, nor revisions made – the diary of a young Ida B. Wells was found among her various papers and later published – one often has a difficult time figuring out the importance of certain events and the identity of certain people identified only by initials. For example, during her time in Memphis, she was involved in a lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad because she had been forced to sit in the smoking car, though she has bought a first class ticket, but her references to what must have been an important milestone in her life – she ultimately lost her suit when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the smoking car could be viewed as First Class for Negroes – is given only a few short entries. It is possible that Ida was unwilling to let her guard down, even in her diaries. And so it is fortunate that Ms. DeCosta-Willis does such a thorough job of editing, supplying known information whenever possible, and offering hypotheses when certainty proves elusive.

A work like this, which shows us the yearnings and frustrations of a young woman, not yet famous, but on the path to becoming so, can offer the rest of us, not famous, but on the path to becoming our older more complete selves, an insightful view into the struggles we all face.

For those who want to read a biography of the famous crusader, I’d recommend Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching by Paula J. Giddings.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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