96

Southern Horrors:
Lynch Laws in all its Phases

Paula Giddings on the relationship between Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Jane Addams,
racial reform and the U.S. anti-lynching campaign.

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This is Paula Giddings. I want to talk a little bit about the relationship between Ida Wells-Barnett and Jane Addams.

Both women were ardent reformers. In 1895, three years after she initiated the nation’s first anti-lynching campaign, Wells-Barnett married and settled in Chicago. And Ida immediately became associated with, not only black reformers in the city, but white reformers. Especially the very active women around Jane Addams, who were part of the settlement house, the civic betterment and the women’s suffrage movements.

As early as 1899, Addams and Wells-Barnett were close enough for Jane to issue a luncheon invitation to Hull-House through Ida to the offices of the National Association of Colored Women. This was a very important invitation. Black women were just emerging in the public sphere, and Addams was the most famous woman in the country at that time. Addams provided the model for Ida, who established a settlement house – a Negro Fellowship League, along the lines of Hull-House. Of course, it was a much smaller operation.

But addition to the programmatic similarities, I think Wells-Barnett also attempted to operationalize Addams’ ideas about the mutual benefit derived by both the middle class and the poor when they directly engaged with one another. But Addams’ 1899 invitation was also an important gesture of solidarity across racial lines. This did not happen often, and the invitation no doubt paved the way for interracial alliances to come.

Wells-Barnett’s own Alpha Suffrage Club, which she established, and was the first black women’s suffrage club in Chicago, sought to support white and black women candidates as well as black men. Addams again showed her racial empathies in 1903, when Wells-Barnett asked Jane to convene a meeting of leading reformers to protest the campaign led by the Chicago Daily Tribune to institute school desegregation.

Chicago schools had been racially mixed since 1874. Black teachers taught both black and white students. Ida had already gone to see the Tribune publisher, but had been met with hostility. And Ida ended up in an argument with him. Subsequently, she went to Jane Addams to ask her to intervene. Addams did so. She convened a meeting that Ida suggested, and the group went to see the publisher, Robert Patterson. The visit ended the pro-segregation editorials.

Jane Addams was also on the board of the Chicago Urban League, was one of the original signers of the NAACP, as was Ida B. Wells. The first branch of the civil rights organization was actually established in Chicago, and Addams, who had great influence with reformers and philanthropists, was made its first president.

Ida, though she believed in interracial coalition, also believed that African Americans should lead racial movements. So she wasn’t happy about Addams’ selection as the president of the Chicago branch of the NAACP. Mostly, it was a circle of social work reformers around Addams – “the academic few,” Ida called them – that Ida objected to. At a time when there were efforts to elevate the status of social work through emphasizing social scientific methods of inquiry, the increasing numbers of black female migrants were becoming subjects of study by these academic few. And Wells-Barnett chafed at many of their conclusions, that often assumed that black women were less moral and more promiscuous than their white counterparts.

Jane Addams, with all of her good points, could be patronizing about race. In 1901, Wells-Barnett published “Lynching and the Excuse for It,” to answer one of Addams’ previous articles in the same publication that was called “Respect for Law.” In the article, Addams argued that lynching was not a deterrent to rape, that brutality only begets brutality. And that – quote – “the underdeveloped are never helped by such methods” – end quote.

Although pleased that someone of Addams’s stature would take on the issue of lynching, and that Addams condemned the practice, Ida did not like the idea that Jane Addams accepted – quote – “for argument’s sake, the fact that lynchers sincerely believe that black men were raping white women.”

Wells-Barnett had been using statistics and other evidence to demonstrate that the charge of rape was in many instances fabricated, and was struck by the fact, as she wrote: “Law-abiding and fair-minded people should so persistently shut their eyes to the facts. This record, easily within the reach of anyone who wants it,” made it “inexcusable” for anyone not to debunk the presumption from the beginning.

Wells believed this, as she wrote: instead of misrepresentations, the “lynching records should be allowed to plead, trumpet-tongued in defense of the slandered dead.” It was only then that the nation could be summoned “to do its duty to exalt justice, and preserve inviolate the sacredness of human life.”