Wells in 1920
Wells in 1920 Photo: Chicago History Museum

1 She got her early-career nom de plume by chance.

“According to our family stories,” Michelle Duster writes in Ida B. the Queen (out January 26), Wells had seen the d in her name handwritten on a document as if it were two letters, so that her first name looked like “Iola.” She liked it, and when she began writing a social-justice-oriented weekly column for a Black newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee, in the mid-1880s, she used it as a pen name. “Iola’s articles were popular and began to spread across the country,” Duster writes.

2 She was a data journalism pioneer.

Writing under her real moniker, Wells collected information from Southern newspapers to create statistics “to convey the vast scale of America’s lynching problem.” She was praised for this by none other than Frederick Douglass, but her work came at a cost. In 1892, while she was away from Memphis on a business trip, a mob destroyed her printing press and threatened to kill her if she returned. She moved to Chicago and never lived in the South again.

3 She was Chicago’s first female probation officer.

Wells took the job to pay rent for the Negro Fellowship League, a community center for Black migrants from the South that she ran with her husband. She combined the roles, telling “many of her probationers to report to her at the center, so that she could keep her eye on them while helping them find work.”

4 She had one-on-ones with the top leaders of the day.

In meetings with Presidents William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson and Illinois governor Frank Lowden, Wells advocated making lynching a federal crime, ending segregation in the White House, and providing justice for Black victims of a downstate race riot. She “spoke candidly about the injustices she saw,” Duster writes. “Advocating on behalf of people who could not always walk into those rooms with her, she refused to homogenize her message or back down from her ideals.”

5 She used savvy tactics to confront racism within the suffragist movement.

When organizers of a 1913 women’s voting rights march in Washington, D.C., said they wanted Black women to walk in the back “in order to appease the southern suffragists,” Wells pretended to agree. The next day, they couldn’t find her beforehand. “When the Illinois delegation started to march, suddenly Ida B emerged from the crowd to march front and center.”