Ida B. Wells — Mattel’s New Barbie

A Year of Essays: January 12, 2022

It was late 2019 when I first learned about Ida B. Wells. Yesterday, Mattel announced it would honor her with a Barbie doll, part of Barbie’s Inspiring Women’s series. Good for Mattel.

In late 2019, in planning for Women’s History Month 2020, I created a montage of 100 notable women who have effected change — with the only caveat being they were alive after 1920, when women’s suffrage was granted. Committee members came up with a list of 140 names. One was Ida B. Wells. Why had I never heard of her? (Malewashing and whitewashing history, of course.)

Wells was an early civil rights and women’s rights activist born into slavery during the Civil War in Mississippi. Seventy-one years before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Wells refused to give up her seat in the first-class ladies’ car on the C&O Railroad. She was dragged out of the car. She wrote an article about her treatment for a Black church weekly, then sued the railroad company. After the Black attorney she hired to represent her was paid off by the railroad company, she hired a White attorney who won her case. The C&O appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court which overturned the lower court’s verdict. This launched her civil rights activism, and she became more active as a journalist and writer while continuing to teach. In her late 20s, she was fired by the Memphis schools for her piece critical of Black schools in the area.

Over the next few years, Wells did investigative research documenting lynching in the 1890s. She published her findings in the pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She adapted a line from Longfellow’s poem “The Warning,” writing about “poor, blind Afro-American Sampsons” denoting Black men as victims of “white Delilahs.” Several years later, she published another pamphlet, The Red Record, noting during the period from the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to the mid 1890s that “ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, [through lynching] without the formality of judicial and legal execution.” Wells went on a speaking tour in Britain where people were more sympathetic to her campaign against lynching.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Chicago, Wells was active in women’s rights issues, including women’s enfranchisement. She helped found the National Association of Colored Women’s Cub and the National Afro-American Council. She continued her activism, writing about the East St. Louis Race Riots and the Elaine massacre in Arkansas. In 1930, she unsuccessfully ran as an Independent against a Republican for the Illinois Senate. Ida Wells died in 1931.

Over the past 50 years since the posthumous publication of her autobiography, her legacy has exploded with awards established in her name, schools, buildings, and plazas named after her, a commemorative stamp during Black History Month, and a special Pulitzer Prize in 2020 “for her outstanding and courageous reporting.” And now a Barbie doll. Ida B. Wells: An Inspiring Woman.

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David Russell Beach

David Russell Beach

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David Beach is playwright/writer, director, dramaturg, and educator. He holds a PhD in education and an MFA in playwriting, and is a professor at Radford U.