Ida Wells Barnett honored in Birmingham, England

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LORD MAYOR OF Birmingham, Yvonne Mosquito, with the Edgbaston blue plaque.

By Linn Washington Jr.

Legendary African-American journalist Ida Wells Barnett made a lasting impression in England, a country over 3,000-miles from Chicago, the city where that co-founder of America’s NAACP lived over half of her life.

The impact Wells-Barnett made in England coupled with the legacy of her life’s work from civil rights to women’s rights is now the basis of a unique honor: a historic plaque for her in Birmingham, the second largest city in England located 120-miles northwest of London.

Wells-Barnett travelled to England twice in the mid-1890s lecturing and lobbying against the bloody American scourge of lynching. White terrorist lynching claimed over 4,000 lives in America between 1880 and 1941 with 82.5 percent of lynch victims being Black men, women and children.

Well Barnett’s travels through England, where she met prominent Britons and addressed audiences that numbered over one thousand people, helped launch the London Anti-Lynching Committee in 1894, reportedly the first anti-lynching organization in the world.

During her first trip to England in 1893, Wells Barnett stayed at a home of supporters in the affluent Edgbaston area of Birmingham. The original site of that house is now the location of the Edgabaston Community Centre. The Centre is the location for the Wells Barnett historic plaque.

The ceremony unveiling the plaque honoring Wells Barnett coincides with the founding of the NAACP, 110-years ago on February 12, 1909. Invited guests include a descendent of Well Barnett, her great grandson Dan Duster.

Duster, in a statement released before the unveiling, observed how his great grandmother’s travels around Britain “were significant in helping to sharpen her skills to fight for justice and equal rights.”

Duster noted that in Britain Wells Barnett was “able to further expose the international community to the extent, brutal violence and reasons used” to justify lynching.

Wells Barnett exploded many myths surrounding lynching with investigative reporting published in newspaper articles, pamphlets and books. Defenders of lynching, that included journalists, often claimed lynching was rightful retribution against Black men for their sexual assaults on white women. But reporting by Wells Barnett documented that many Blacks were lynched for their economic success not alleged sexual crimes.

Wells Barnett wrote that false cries of rape by white lynch mobs were “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized…”

The sharp spoken Wells Barnett had detractors in England. One Birmingham city official questioned why she campaigned against lynching in his city instead of in her own country.

Wells Barnett responded that the “pulpit and press” in America remained silent on these continued outrages and the voice of my race is stifled or ignored whenever it is lifted in America in demand for justice. It is to the moral sentiment of Great Britain that we must now turn…”

During her second trip to England in 1894, Wells Barnett got into a verbal row with a fellow American then travelling in England. That white female was president of America’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Wells Barnett took issue with that woman castigating Blacks as a race of drunks and her statements that condoned lynching.

Interestingly, racism practiced by white Americans in England produced a pivotal court verdict against discrimination during World War II. Acclaimed Caribbean-born athlete Learie Constantine, who was working for the British government during WWII, was barred from a London hotel because hotel management feared offending American military officers who didn’t want Blacks in that hotel. Constantine’s successful lawsuit led to passage of Britain’s first civil rights law years later.

The Mississippi-born Ida B. Wells turned her journalism to exposing the horrors of lynching while living in Memphis, Tennessee in the early 1890s. That followed the lynching of three friends who were Black businessmen. (Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis 37-years after the death of Wells Barnett in 1931.)

The organization responsible for that Wells Barnett recognition in Birmingham is the Nubian Jak Community Trust. That London-based organization has erected 42 plaques around England highlighting the historic contributions of Black and minority people in that nation. Persons cited by those plaques include Brits like Constantine and Black Americans who impacted England during travels there like fabled activist/journalist Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X.

Douglass both admired and worked with Wells Barnett. One of their collaborations involved public condemnation of the 1893 world’s fair held in Chicago because of exclusion of contributions Blacks made in America. Ida Wells’ future husband, respected Black Chicago lawyer Ferdinand Barnett, also joined in that condemnation.

Nubian Trust CEO, Dr. Jak Beula, praised Wells Barnett for her life spent “tackling racism and sexism.”

Linn Washington

Linn Washington is a professor of journalism at Temple University located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is also where he earned his bachelor’s degree. His education included a fellowship at Yale Law School, where Washington earned a Master’s degree and served as special assistant to the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Washington continues to work as a professional journalist for news entities (print and online) across the U.S. and in Europe, for which he has been recognized with awards. He frequently serves as an expert commentator, including appearances on CNN and the BBC World Service. He has directed study abroad programs for Temple’s School of Media and Communication in London and South Africa.

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