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Missing in Action Ida B. Wells, the naacp, and the Historical Record PAULA GIDDINGS When Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)1 sat down at her long dining room table in 1928, three years before her death, to begin writing her autobiography, her place in history was hardly assured. In addition to leading the nation's first anti-lynching campaign, Wells-Barnett co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) and organized a black settlement house in Chicago, the Negro Fellowship League. She established the only black women's suffrage club extant in Illinois when women became partially enfranchised there in 1913, and subsequently ran for a senate seat in the state. Wells-Barnett was also the instrumental force behind the first national black women's movement in the United States. Although in recent years there has been growing attention paid to her achievements, Wells-Barnett has yet to be fully acknowledged in the canonical literature. Racism and/or sexism, in part, explain this oversight , as does the factthatscholars have onlyrecentlyrecognized theways in which "difference," and the intersections of race, class, and gender informed Wells-Barnett's analysis ofracial violence. Wells-Barnett was the firstactivistto linklynching to cultural attitudes aboutwomen—black and white—and to sexuality. There remains however another unstudied factor that has affected Wells-Barnett's place in history: she was marginalized bythe civil rights establishment—including those who thought her too militant and yet incorporated her insights into their own strategies without crediting her. In January of 1930, when Wells-Barnett and her oldest daughter, Ida B. Jr., attended a Negro History Week meeting in Chicago, her worst suspicions were confirmed. The group discussed a book by Carter G. Woodson—who had inaugurated Negro History Week and [Meridians:feminism, race, transnationalism 2001, vol. i, no. 2, pp. 1-17]©2001 by Wesleyan University Press. All rights reserved. was known as the "Father ofNegro History"—a book in which her own anti-lynching efforts were not mentioned (Wells-Barnett 1930). Compounding this oversight was the fact that Woodson had met WellsBarnett when he spoke before the Negro Fellowship League in 1915, the year he organized the Association for Study of Negro Life and History in Chicago (Chicago Defender 7 August 1915). Another founder of the Association, a Chicagoan named George Cleveland Hall, had been Wells-Barnett's physician and had delivered at least one ofher four children . Wells-Barnett quickly realized thatifshe was going to establish her place in history, she had better chronicle her own life. Thus, WellsBarnett became the first black woman political activist to write a fulllength autobiography. One of the most significant reasons why the full breadth of Ida B. Wells-Barnett's impact on history has never been documented was her vexed relationship with the naacp, the leading civil rights organization of the twentieth century. Most chroniclers have focused on WellsBarnett 's difficult personality, her "need to dominate," and her disputatious ways in explaining her tensions with the civil rights organization specifically, and with nearly every liberal leader regardless ofrace, sex, or place on the political spectrum (see, e.g., Thompson 1990 and McMurray 1998). The personal observation about her is accurate but should not obscure the very real ideological differences that this uncompromising activist had with many individuals and groups. Her differences with the naacp in particular, which kept Wells-Barnett on the margins ofmainstream African-American and women's history, were evident from the earliest years of that organization. Ironically, the formation of both the Negro Fellowship League, Wells-Barnett's primary base of operations, and the naacp had the same catalyst: the 1908 riot in Springfield, Illinois. In the summer of1908, the city ofSpringfield, Illinois, was preparing for the centennial celebration ofits native son, Abraham Lincoln, born just a short distance away. But in the sweltering heat ofthe season, the largely rural white population of Kentucky- and southern Illinois-born migrants had something other than the Great Emancipator on their minds. The city had grown tautwith fear. Whites and unskilled laborers, many ofthem foreign-born, felt that their jobs were being threatened by the growing number ofblackmigrants from the South. At the same time, whites in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1547-8424
Print ISSN
1536-6936
Pages
pp. 1-17
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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