The Life of Ida B. Wells
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A black woman’s rise from orphanhood to activism demonstrates social politcs in America during the Reconstruction era. Wells, at age 16, was forced into an early adulthood after the death of her parents, and from that moment on she paved a road to political fulfillment, negotiated through her personal experience. McMurry (History/North Carolina State Univ., George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol, 1981, etc.) draws from Wells’s avid journal writing—to demonstrate her youthful need to be seen as both a “lady” and an “independent”—and later from her newspaper writing, eventually her full-time career, where her own need for respect led her to an awareness of the problems of black men. As a young black woman alone during Reconstruction, Wells hurdled racial barriers only to encounter gender barriers as she supported herself as a teacher in the South, without the protection of a husband. Wells introduced herself to activism when, at barely 20, she sued a railroad company for preventing her from sitting in the first-class “ladies” car. The social confinement brought on by both race and gender, as Wells realized early, was legislated by southern states in order to impede African-American progress after slavery had ended. McMurry portrays Wells as one who, despite her understanding of injustices met by black women, identified primarily with crimes against her race, both because they raised larger questions and because she felt personally conflicted about gender roles. Finding a man who was not threatened by her independence, and who saw her as a lady, proved to be a lifelong challenge. The lynch law, which purported to protec t white women from rape by black men, launched Wells into a career of public speaking that continued until her death. A solid study of a black woman activist confronting both racial discrimination and controversial questions of gender role. (17 halftones, 11 linecuts)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-19-508812-3
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1998