Linda McMurry
Linda McMurry
To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells
ISBN: 0195139275
To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells
When Frederick Douglass died in 1895, writes Linda O. McMurry, Ida B. Wells "was his logical heir apparent; they had collaborated closely on several projects. She was better known than W.E.B. DuBois and more ideologically compatible with Douglass than Booker T. Washington"—but it was considered too belittling to black "manhood" to have a woman leading African American politics.

Wells first rose to prominence when she wrote about her lawsuit against a railroad company that had kicked her out of a first-class seat. Throughout the 1890s, she crusaded vigorously against the rise of lynching as a tactic used by whites to intimidate the newly freed black populace. She also worked closely with the suffragist movement, but broke with white feminists who preferred to downplay or ignore ethnic dimensions to social justice. The woman who emerges from McMurry's intricately detailed biography, drawn extensively from Wells's own writings, is a fierce social advocate who easily serves as a role model for modern activists.
—from the publisher's website

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TRANSCRIPT
To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells
Program Air Date: September 26, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Linda O. McMurry, author of "The Life of Ida B. Wells," why did you call this "To Keep the Waters Troubled"?
Professor LINDA McMURRY, AUTHOR, "TO KEEP THE WATERS TROUBLED: THE LIFE OF IDA B. WELLS": It came from a quote that Wells made herself. She was run out of Memphis, Tennessee, because of an editorial on lynching she did. And she later asserted that the reason that she was run out is because the Free Press, the paper that she owned, was the "disturbing element that kept the waters troubled." And to me, it seemed like a pretty good way to summarize Wells herself because there were a lot of exasperating qualities that Wells had, but she was not somebody that could be ignored. And I think that there is a definite place for people who will not allow complacency to develop.
LAMB: When did she live?
Prof. McMURRY: She was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and she ended up moving from there to Memphis when her parents--both of her parents died in the yellow fever epidemic in 1878. And so she, at 16, took over the care of her siblings and became head of the household. And she moved to Memphis in 1881 because it became a better place to be a teacher.
LAMB: When did she die?
Prof. McMURRY: She died in 1931.
LAMB: And how old would she have been then? I guess...
Prof. McMURRY: Sixty-nine.
LAMB: Sixty-nine. You've got a picture that's on the cover and I want to get a real good close-up of this. It's also inside the book. What do you see when you look at that picture?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, to me, this was made right about the time that she was at the peak of her fame. And I think it shows that she's a very attractive woman and it also shows the kind of undercurrent of sorrow, to me, too. And there was a lot in her life to be sorry about.
LAMB: Well, go back to Mississippi, where she was born. At what age did both of her parents die?
Prof. McMURRY: She was 16.
LAMB: They both died then?
Prof. McMURRY: Mm-hmm. They both died in the yellow fever epidemic.
LAMB: How big was the yellow fever epidemic in this country?
Prof. McMURRY: It was huge. That was the first time that a yellow fever epidemic had come as far as Memphis, and so there was not as much natural immunity that had developed. So it was huge...
LAMB: What was it?
Prof. McMURRY: ...thousands of people.
LAMB: What happened to you when you got yellow fever?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, a large percentage of people who got it died, is what happened.
LAMB: How did you get it?
Prof. McMURRY: Through mosquitoes.
LAMB: Do we have that problem solved?
Prof. McMURRY: Through mosquito control and if you go into places where yellow fever is rampant, they give you an immunization for it, I think. But both of her parents died and one of her siblings died. And her father was a Mason, and so the Masons showed up at their house and said, `We're gonna farm this child out here and this child out there,' and Wells just shook her head and said, `No, my parents would--it would just destroy my parents to see the family split up. If you can help me find work, I'll take care of them.'
LAMB: How many kids were there?
Prof. McMURRY: She had four younger siblings that were still alive.
LAMB: Did she take care of them?
Prof. McMURRY: Yes.
LAMB: Where?
Prof. McMURRY: She started out in Holly Springs, getting a teaching job out in the country near there. And then in 1881, her aunt invited her to come to Memphis. And at first, she wasn't able to get a job teaching in Memphis, so she was teaching out in Woodstock, which was nearby, but the kids--well, the two boys, by that time, were old enough to be apprenticed out and to sort of be on their own. And her two younger sisters came with her to Memphis and lived with her aunt. She and her aunt lived together, and they lived there, but Wells was the primary support for the family.
LAMB: And how far is Holly Springs, Mississippi, from Memphis?
Prof. McMURRY: Not that far. Holly Springs is in an extremely--the extreme north of Mississippi, and so it's not a really long trip back and forth.
LAMB: Have you been there?
Prof. McMURRY: Yes, I've been there.
LAMB: Is there a place that--is there a Ida B. Wells home or a museum or something like that?
Prof. McMURRY: Not much in Memphis. They do have a historical marker now for her. But her home where she eventually lived, ended up, was in Chicago. And for her home there, it has been made a national historic site.
LAMB: One of the previous BOOKNOTES, a young fellow was here when he was 18--he's now in college--LeAlan Jones, and in talking about the projects in Chicago, he mentioned the Ida B. Wells development. Let me just run just a little 50--40-minute clip...
Prof. McMURRY: OK.
LAMB: ...about him so we can make a contact there. (Excerpt from BOOKNOTES, August 3, 1997)
LAMB: This is the four--actual 14th story...
Mr. LeALAN JONES, Co-AUTHOR, "OUR AMERICA: LIFE AND DEATH ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF CHICAGO": That's the 14th story--that's the 14th floor.
LAMB: And where is this?
Mr. JONES: That's the Def Homes or the Darrow Homes, whichever one you may prefer to call it.
LAMB: In the Ida B. Wells development.
Mr. JONES: In the Ida B. Wells. Now that building actually is being torn down.
LAMB: You think that's a good idea?
Mr. JONES: It's, you know, it's a little bit too late, but I'm glad it's coming down.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. JONES: Because they never really served their purpose. They were put up there to say--they were put up there cheaply, first of all, and yet, it's a sad sight. No one can live in those conditions. (End of excerpt)
LAMB: What do you think--why would they name a whole project after Ida B. Wells?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, she was always, I think, perhaps more recognized in Chicago than elsewhere in the country, so that was really her first major honor, was having this housing complex named for her. I think it was 1940 it was built or something like that. Of course, she would have been horrified at what the style and level of living that developed out of that complex.
LAMB: Why?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, it is the scene--it has been a scene of many sad occurrences because it has all--as he was saying, it has all the terrible disadvantages of that high-density housing project kind of subsidized housing.
LAMB: What had she done in her life that they would name a project like that after her?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, one reviewer of the book said he wished that I could have put the brakes on Wells so that he could have had--could have caught his breath between it. There was a lot that she did. She first became well-known--or her first major event actually came two years after moving to Memphis, when she rode a train between Woodstock, where she was teaching, and Memphis, where she was living. And about that time, segregation had not been firmly established. It was just in the process of being established. And so she always got a ticket and rode the ladies' car. And one day they came and told her to move from the ladies' car and she refused, and so they--he reached over to grab her and throw her off the train, and she bit him. That didn't get as much publicity. It does--you know, it does illustrate her temperament, however. But what happened after that is not only did she refuse to leave the train willingly, but she sued the railroad company and won, initially. It was eventually overturned on appeal.

But she won, and that got a lot of publicity in the black press and it actually launched her career into journalism because she began to write articles about her suit and then that launched into writing articles on all kinds of things to the various black newspapers of the time, and many of them had national readership. And so she assumed the name Iola and became pretty well-known as a black journalist.
LAMB: Iola Wells? Is that what her...
Prof. McMURRY: No, her name--she just used the...
LAMB: Iola.
Prof. McMURRY: ...Iola, period. She didn't use her full name. May have been because she was a little bit concerned about the impact it might have on her teaching career if it was wild known--widespread knowledge of who was writing these editorials. But she never did check her pen for anybody. She eventually did get fired from teaching because she criticized the school board for some of its actions and a newspaper.
LAMB: Go back to the train. What were the different classes at that time in the South? You say the ladies' car. And why would she have--why would they have asked her to leave?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, to a large extent, the designation of ladies' cars was a contradiction to what the image that whites wanted other whites to have of black women. Beginning in slavery, black women had been sexually exploited and--with impunity. And in the classic argument of the racist--of the rapist, I mean, they said, you know, `She really wanted it,' so a picture of black women as being particularly sensual and depraved emerged. And so consequently, at the end of slavery, it was a very important priority for black women to get the respect they had never had. And it also was a high priority among Southern white racists to see that she didn't get the designation of `lady.'

So it was a big deal to black women to be forced to leave the ladies' car and go to the smoking cars, where they normally were sent. And they were sent there, and the smoking car became the Jim Crow car, the segregated car.
LAMB: And in the South in those years--and what years are we talking about now in Memphis?
Prof. McMURRY: In the 1880s.
LAMB: What was the population base? How big was Memphis? What was the ratio, black and white? Do you know?
Prof. McMURRY: I really don't recall exactly. It was--Memphis was a relatively new city and it had been wiped out by the yellow fever epidemic, too. And so to some extent, it really had begun over in 1878, so it was not nearly the size it is today, but it was still--it was a very rapidly growing city. And African-Americans made up a sizeable minority of the residents in Memphis.
LAMB: When did the--Beale Street, the jazz and all that come to Memphis?
Prof. McMURRY: It was developing while Wells was there. Beale Street was a long street and the part that most Americans are familiar with are where all the blues clubs and things like that were. There's another part of Beale Street that was kind of the black Wall Street of Memphis, where black professionals had their offices and all. And that's something I think a lot of people who read this book would be surprised, is the extent to which the black elite had developed into professionals. There were a lot of black doctors and lawyers in Memphis. There was quite a black elite. As a matter of fact, probably the wealthiest man in Memphis was black, a man by the name of Robert Church.
LAMB: You talked in here about a senator, a black senator--I can't find the name right quickly, but--and I remember you saying that he was the last black senator up until the 1964 Voting Rights Act, and this was back in the 1800s--or 19...
Prof. McMURRY: Well, in actually 19--I think he left the House--it was the Congress rather than the Senate. But, no, George White was from North Carolina and was elected and served till 1901, and then once he left, there were no other African-Americans from the South elected until after the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
LAMB: Sounds like you have a little bit of a Southern accent. Where are you from?
Prof. McMURRY: I was born in Montgomery, but that was only because women went home to have their babies at that time. I grew up in Atlanta.
LAMB: And where are you now full time?
Prof. McMURRY: I'm a professor at North Carolina State University.
LAMB: Where is that?
Prof. McMURRY: That's in Raleigh, North Carolina.
LAMB: And what's the population of the North Carolina State--what kind of school is it?
Prof. McMURRY: We have about--close to 30,000 students. It's one of the two major research universities of the University of North Carolina system. Most people are more aware of our sister in Chapel Hill, but we're both part of--we're the two designated research institutions in there. We are more engineering and technical stuff.
LAMB: How did you talk Oxford Press into doing a book on Ida B. Wells?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, actually, I didn't. An agent did. But I had already published a book with Oxford, a biography of George Washington Carver, so that I don't think it was too much of a hard sell. It had done very well.
LAMB: And what was that all about? Who was George Washington Carver?
Prof. McMURRY: He was probably one of the best-known African-Americans in the 1940s, '50s and so forth. He was a agricultural scientist at Tuskegee Institute and became really well-known as a black scientist.
LAMB: And how did you get your interest in this?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, I went to school--I got my PhD at Auburn University, which was 25 miles away from Tuskegee, and that's where all his papers were, which is one reason nobody had done a full-scale biography of him, I think, is that Tuskegee was kind of inaccessible for most researchers.
LAMB: Why?
Prof. McMURRY: It's just kind of remote. I mean, you know, it's not one of those places that is--and the Carver papers were very extensive, I mean. There were something like--there was a whole wall of document boxes because he saved every letter he ever wrote.
LAMB: And when did he live?
Prof. McMURRY: He was born in 1865 and died in 1943.
LAMB: Did they know each other?
Prof. McMURRY: Not personally, I'm almost sure they didn't.
LAMB: But someone that she did know is Booker T. Washington, according to...
Prof. McMURRY: Oh, yes.
LAMB: And where was he from?
Prof. McMURRY: He was the president of Tuskegee Institute, where Carver was working, and he was also known as the kind of combination of spokesperson for African-Americans. He essentially told African-Americans to work hard and to make themselves respectable and acceptable to whites and economically important to whites, and that their rights would automatically come to them if they did that.
LAMB: And what did Ida Wells say to him about that?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, it completely contradicted her own experience, although it was very consistent with his experience. What I think was the turning point for her on this whole issue of winning rights by respectability was the lynching of three of her friends in Memphis, which also was a key factor in the change of the course of her career. These three individuals included Thomas Moss, who she was close enough to actually be the godchild of his child. And they were lynched primarily because they opened up a supermarket in competition with a white supermarket. And so these were young men who were very respectable, they worked hard, they were making themselves economically important and independent. And they were lynched because they were successful. And so that caused her to turn her considerable anger towards the anti-lynching violence.
LAMB: Who is this in this picture?
Prof. McMURRY: That is a picture of Wells, standing up, with Tom Moss' wife and two children at the...
LAMB: And Tom Moss...
Prof. McMURRY: Was one of them that was lynched.
LAMB: Go back to the lynching story. What year was this?
Prof. McMURRY: It was 1892.
LAMB: She would have been in her 30s?
Prof. McMURRY: Let's see. I've got it.
LAMB: She was 62--32--yeah.
Prof. McMURRY: No, it was 18--yeah, it was 1892. She would have been 30 years old.
LAMB: And what were the circumstances?
Prof. McMURRY: As I explained...
LAMB: But, I mean, where was the grocery?
Prof. McMURRY: It was right in an area that was kind of a fringe between white and black sections, and there was a single white grocery store there. And Moss was the president of this company that was kind of a cooperative grocery store, the people's store that opened up. It was in direct competition with the grocery store that was there. And there was bad blood between them all along. I mean, the white owner wanted to run them out and--because they were actually winning the battle of competition. Moss was so influential in the black community, he drew in most of the black business and even some of the white business. So he kept trying to find ways of running him out. And then they had an altercation and he convinced a judge that Moss was a danger, and so they had been informed that a white mob was gonna attack the store, and instead, there was a group of deputies who came that were dressed in civilian clothes, and they thought it was the mob. And so there was an exchange of gunfire and it was blown into a conspiracy, supposedly, of a black insurrection. And so they arrested about 30 people, but the only people they lynched were those people who were directly tied to the store.
LAMB: Three black men...
Prof. McMURRY: Three black men. And...
LAMB: ...Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Lee Stewart.
Prof. McMURRY: Right. And Thomas Moss wasn't even at the store when it happened, but he was lynched anyway.
LAMB: Then what happened?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, Wells happened to be out of town at the time, and when she came back, it immediately caused her to focus her attention on the issue of lynching. And in the course of doing this, she began to refute the myth that had been perpetrated to justify lynching by white mobs, and that was that black men were essentially so bestial that they had to have the restraining hand of, you know, the white mob to keep them under control. And so rape was given as the major reason for lynching and even people who disagreed with lynching essentially believed that, you know, rape was the cause. Well, with this lynching of these three people, she knew that it was not--rape wasn't in any way involved, and so she began investigating and began to discover that rape wasn't even a charge in the vast majority of lynchings. And in this particular--and even when it was charged, it could be something a black man winking at a woman would be attempted rape or something like that.

So she began to challenge that, and she wrote an editorial in the Memphis Free Speech, of which she was editor at that time--by that time, and essentially implied that this cry of rape was--could be a source of embarrassment for white women because--that most of--or at least many white women were willing participants in sexual liaisons with the black men and didn't raise the rape until afterwards. Well, needless to say, her editorial infuriated white Memphis and she was out of town then. And they came to the offices of the Free Press and ran her partner out of town. And eventually all of the presses and so forth were confiscated, and she was told by people from Memphis that she should not come back.
LAMB: They didn't have free press in Memphis then?
Prof. McMURRY: Oh, that was the name of her newspaper.
LAMB: No, no, no, but, I mean, they didn't...
Prof. McMURRY: Oh, no, it didn't--that was the end of the free press.
LAMB: You couldn't go to court and...
Prof. McMURRY: No. African-Americans had very little legal protection during that period of time.
LAMB: What impact did the Reconstruction have on Memphis and that part of the country?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, I'm not sure exactly what you mean.
LAMB: Well, you had the Civil War and then you had the Reconstruction period and--were the blacks involved at all in any of the governing of the city?
Prof. McMURRY: Yeah, there was a good deal of black involvement early on, but...
LAMB: Was there any occupation--troop occupation down there?
Prof. McMURRY: Yeah. Well, Memphis became kind of a headquarters for the Northern troops, and so during the war--and large numbers of slaves and freed blacks would run to Memphis to get behind the Army lines. So there was a good deal of friction there and you had a good deal of opportunity for blacks as well.
LAMB: When you went to find her story, how hidden was it? I know she did an autobiography.
Prof. McMURRY: Well, it was--and to me, it was much too hidden, although recent scholarship's beginning to recognize her importance. She should have had a full-scale biography years earlier. She had her autobiography, which her daughter tried to get published and was not able to get published until 1970. She also wrote some diaries while she was in Memphis, which were a wonderful source for her ideas and her personality and so forth, although a good portion of the diary was about her romantic affairs and things of that sort. It still gave a lot of insight and...
LAMB: Where'd you find the diaries?
Prof. McMURRY: The diaries were at the University of Chicago, where all of her papers are. Her papers were very limited, though, because I understand there was a house fire or something like that, and so they don't have that many papers. But one of the sources I got a lot of information from were the various black newspapers.
LAMB: And where did you find them?
Prof. McMURRY: Many of them have been microfilmed, and so you could get them through microfilm.
LAMB: And how long did this biography take you?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, let's see. I started thinking about Wells about probably 1991 and actively began working on the biography in '93 and it came out in '98.
LAMB: And you say that1892 was when the Memphis lynching occurred and then there's this--you have this in your book...
Prof. McMURRY: Yes.
LAMB: ...about the lectures that she used to give and that she was called to New York some way and that began her whole career as a lecturer?
Prof. McMURRY: Yes. When she was essentially run out of Memphis, what happened is that she moved to New York, where she became affiliated with the New York Age, which was a leading black newspaper. And the fact that she was in exile added to the interest of her story and so forth, so that she began to give lectures. And that was one of the lectures that she gave at the brochure there.
LAMB: Let me just look at this closely. It says, `Miss Ida B. Wells, a lecture, Metropolitan AME Church, Monday evening, October 31st, 1892.' And it says--talks about Southern mob rule and will be introduced by T. Thomas Fortune. Who was he?
Prof. McMURRY: He was the editor of the Free Sp--I mean, the editor of the New York Age that she went to work for.
LAMB: And what was he like and what role did he play in her life?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, he became a mentor early on in her course of journalism and so forth. T. Thomas Fortune also was the founder of the Afro-American Council, and Wells was involved in the founding of that organization as well as just about every major organization that had to do with black rights. She was involved in the founding of the NAACP, the National Association of Colored Women, the Niagara Movement, she was probably the most active woman in that --W.E.B. Du Bois' group.
LAMB: You've got this photograph or this full page of photographs and Mr. Fortune is up there in the left-hand corner, and then you have Booker T. Washington off to the right, Frederick Douglass in the middle and Ida B. Wells down there on the right. Who's down in the left-hand corner? Do you know?
Prof. McMURRY: That's I. Garland Penn. He had just currently written a book about black journalists.
LAMB: What is this we're looking at?
Prof. McMURRY: It came from a book of the period. I think it was called "The College for Life" or something like that. It was kind of a celebration of black life and culture. And what I think was important about this photograph is that it illustrated--this was in 1895--it was sort of--Douglass was considered the outstanding leader and spokesperson, and so he's in the middle, but it's almost like these are satellites around him, or the contenders for his mantle, because he was aging at the time, and I thought it was very significant that Wells was one of them...
LAMB: Oh...
Prof. McMURRY: ...and W.E.B. Du Bois was not, but he was not very well-known in 1895.
LAMB: What was Ida B. Wells' relationship with Frederick Douglass?
Prof. McMURRY: Pretty close. He very much supported her anti-lynching campaign and wrote a preface for her first anti-lynching pamphlet that grew out of her lecture and newspaper articles about lynching. She also went to his house a number of times and she--he especially appreciated her because she accepted his wife, his second wife. After his first wife died, Douglass married a white woman and many people were upset about it. But Douglass wrote her and said that she always gave his wife the--you know, the kind of respect that she deserved.
LAMB: There's another lynching incident--a fellow named Sam Hose.
Prof. McMURRY: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What was that?
Prof. McMURRY: There's so many lynchings she was involved in.
LAMB: This was Newnan, Georgia.
Prof. McMURRY: Newnan, Georgia. Well, that was one that--it occurred down there and it was a pretty terrible lynching. But it was also a lynching that occurred down in Booker T. Washington's neck of the woods. And eventually, the role of leadership from--that--of Douglass was gonna be filled by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois as kind of contenders for the throne. And he was somewhat apologetic about the Hose lynching, which infuriated Wells. But it was impossible for Wells to accept Booker T. Washington's philosophy later on. She had supported him early on because, as I say, their ideas were totally contradictory. He was saying that respectability would bring rights. And she was saying that, you know, respectability is what caused many--much lynching. White progress rather than aggression is what caused lynching.
LAMB: Who is this?
Prof. McMURRY: That's Ferdinand Barnett. She finally found her soul mate when she met him while she--after she moved to Chicago. He was a lawyer and activist also and owned a newspaper in Chicago, The Chicago Conservator. Earlier, she'd had problems with men because any man that was strong enough for her to respect, she was afraid she would lose her independence if she, you know, became too closely involved, or especially got married. She didn't really want to get married. But Ferdinand Barnett was the exception.
LAMB: How old was she when she got married?
Prof. McMURRY: She was 33, I believe it was.
LAMB: And how many children did she have?
Prof. McMURRY: She had four. She also had two stepsons that were grown by the time her own family...
LAMB: Are these all her kids right here?
Prof. McMURRY: Those are all of her kids right there. There are two stepsons that were probably in their late teens when that picture was made.
LAMB: And are any of these kids alive or granddaughters or...
Prof. McMURRY: None of them are still alive, but there are some grandchildren around, yes.
LAMB: What were her kids like? And how did that work out in that family?
Prof. McMURRY: They were very different. The best source of information on the Wells--the Barnett family is probably the daughter that was instrumental in getting her autobiography published.
LAMB: Is this the whole family here?
Prof. McMURRY: Yes, I think that's got them all.
LAMB: Picture's in 1917.
Prof. McMURRY: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That was--that's the family including grandson--their early grandchildren, too.
LAMB: And how did Ida B. Wells and her husband work together?
Prof. McMURRY: It was an unconventional marriage for that time and certainly for--maybe today. They were temperamentally opposite. Barnett was very easy-going and there was nothing easy-going about Wells-Barnett. She took the Wells-Barnett. She did not take his name. She hyphenated her name. But he was supportive of her. He was as militant as she was and supportive. He actually hired a housekeeper to do the housework. And he did most of the cooking because he liked to. And he would hire nurse maids to go with her so she could continue her lectures and activities and so forth.
LAMB: You say they were Republicans.
Prof. McMURRY: Yes, most African-Americans at that time were Republicans.
LAMB: What did that mean?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, the Republican Party was still identified as the party of emancipation. And the Republican Party really was more supportive of black rights than the Democratic Party for most of that period of time. It begins to shift with the New Deal and Roosevelt's election.
LAMB: What were the Ida B. Wells club? Or is it a club or clubs? They have different...
Prof. McMURRY: Yeah. Well, they were clubs that formed even before she came to Chicago, even before she became as famous as she was. She was inspiring the formation of some clubs. The one in Chicago began soon after she got there, and continued to be one of the groups through which she worked.
LAMB: When did she go to England and why?
Prof. McMURRY: She made two tours to England in '93 and '94.
LAMB: 1893.
Prof. McMURRY: 1893 and 1894, yes. There was a woman who was over in the United States touring. Her name was Catherine Impey. And she became alarmed about lynching. And she also met Wells. And she figured that she'd be very effective to bring to England to rouse the English sentiment against lynching. And so she and another woman in Britain--in Great Britain--I think Isabelle Mayo was in Scotland. I'm not sure. But at any rate, they brought her over for a tour. And then brought--Catherine Impey brought her--no, Mayo brought her back for a second tour in '94.
LAMB: Well, you know, part of what you wrote about the English becoming sympathetic toward what Wells' crusade was about, but during the Civil War, weren't the British somewhat sympathetic to the South, the white South?
Prof. McMURRY: The leadership was, at least in the economic elite because of the dependence upon cotton. But a large portion of the people in general were anti-slavery, largely through the work of Frederick Douglass, who went over on British tours like Wells did later.
LAMB: Were there any people of color in Great Britain in that time?
Prof. McMURRY: Very limited numbers, yeah.
LAMB: So what would the pitch be when she would go over there? What was the purpose?
Prof. McMURRY: The purpose was to play the role that Frederick Douglass had played. That is to rouse British public opinion, so that they would--it would embarrass the people in the United States to do something about it.
LAMB: Did it work?
Prof. McMURRY: Yes. I mean, in the sense of getting whites' attention, it definitely did. She began to be very highly criticized in the white press for her efforts.
LAMB: When was this taken, do you know? And what was she doing at this period?
Prof. McMURRY: That was in 1917. And the little button on her collar there says something like `our modern Negro soldiers.' It was after a shootout in Houston between black troops and white citizens. And without a trial, many of these black soldiers were executed. And so she was essentially raising hell about that. And it led to an interesting visit by the military intelligence or the Secret Service or some agency like that that came to her house and told her that she could be arrested for sedition if she did not decease in this. And she essentially told them, `Well, if I'm to be the one--I'm not gonna stop what I'm doing. If you put me in jail, all right, because I would rather be sitting in jail than not speak up about the truth.' But, of course, they didn't arrest her. She was 55 at the time and a mother of four, you know. So they did not arrest her. But it does illustrate that she'd never back down and she didn't care who she was talking to. She was gonna tell the truth as she saw it.
LAMB: Was she religious?
Prof. McMURRY: Yes, very religious.
LAMB: Which religion?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, she kind of moved around. But she was Church of Christ while she was in Memphis, which made sense because she was kind of a freethinker anyway and the Church of Christ was one of--a denomination that tried to be ecumenical in its Christianity sort of thing--sort of, so that she was, too. When she was in Memphis, she went to about a dozen different churches, but she was a member of the Church of Christ.
LAMB: You have here in the book, page 339--I'll get it--three lessons in life. I don't know if you remember this part or not but her list of three began with the success of a local paper's campaign urging people not to shop where they could not work. What was the point?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, by the way, these are lessons from the year past. She was--this was a New Year's thing where she was writing about the lessons and that would have been in 1930. It was a boycott against merchants who would not hire African-Americans and--essentially saying that you should not shop there if you cannot work there.
LAMB: The second on this was--she called this the bloodless battle for recognition and progress in the economic field. The second lesson was learned when lobbying efforts prevented the confirmation of John J. Parker, a Southern segregationist, to the Supreme Court. This victory taught, quote, "the strength of our political worth." Did they stop this man from being...
Prof. McMURRY: Yes.
LAMB: ...approved for the Supreme Court?
Prof. McMURRY: It was largely the work of the NAACP, but the NAACP and Wells often duplicated efforts. She eventually had a falling out with the leadership of the NAACP or at least the black leadership of the NAACP.
LAMB: What was the reason for the fallout?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, she and Du Bois became kind of a--to loggerheads. And Du Bois was the highest ranking black member of the NAACP in the early stages, the only one on the board.
LAMB: Was he the general counsel?
Prof. McMURRY: No, he was director of research and the publisher of the Crisis, which was a publication of the NAACP.
LAMB: The third lesson for that year--and she died the next year, if I remember.
Prof. McMURRY: Right.
LAMB: `Wells-Barnett praised pastures'--no, I mean, `praised the critically acclaimed performance of black actors in the play "Green Pastures," which she called a wonderful testimonial to Negro art and religion. Wells-Barnett visited presidents and scolded newspapers for using the term "darkie".'
Prof. McMURRY: Yeah, that's a very good quote. Let me see, I have some quotes marked in here that...
LAMB: How much...
Prof. McMURRY: OK, here it is. She wrote a letter to the editor of a Chicago paper and they were calling this retired--or this man who had died or something--they were talking about--I think they referred to him as a old Negro newsboy and an aged darkie. And she protested the use of that terminology and she closed the letter with a quote that I think is very significant. She said, "This may seem a small matter to a large number of readers, but it is part of the great whole. And after all, there is only a difference in degree between taking a man's self-respect and taking his life." Nothing was too big or too small for Wells to tackle. She's best known for anti-lynching efforts, but she was a strong lobbyist in Illinois and was responsible--or--or took part in campaigns to turn back every attempt to segregate the schools in Chicago. That's why--getting back to your earlier question about the housing project, she also established a black settlement house, kind of, in Chicago. She established the first black women's suffrage group in Illinois. She was very active in the fight for women's rights, as well as for black rights. But she always put race concerns over gender concerns.
LAMB: Marcus Garvey's mentioned in your book.
Prof. McMURRY: Yes.
LAMB: Where did he come into the picture? Who was he? Where was he from?
Prof. McMURRY: He was from Jamaica, and he became a challenge to Du Bois' leadership because he formed the United Negro Improvement Association. Anyway, he was living in Harlem at the time and he was recruiting large numbers of essentially lower class African-Americans into this organization, which was a black nationalist kind of organization that rejected, essentially, any kind of racial intermixing.
LAMB: And you say that he eventually was convicted on mail fraud...
Prof. McMURRY: Right.
LAMB: ...in 1924. What happened to him then?
Prof. McMURRY: He served about two years in prison and then was deported back to Jamaica, but--he actually moved to London after that.
LAMB: Now he was a separatist.
Prof. McMURRY: Right.
LAMB: Did she believe in separatism?
Prof. McMURRY: One of the things that I think is significant about Wells--that this book I hope captures is that most of the labels are far too simplistic. She did believe in self help of Booker T. Washington, in some ways, but she didn't believe in his accommodation. She believed in separatism in some ways, but she remained a committed integrationist. There were a lot of ambivalent feelings among much of the black elite about what were the appropriate tactics and so forth and she, essentially, I think was for anything that worked.
LAMB: When she spoke, was it to black audiences or white audiences?
Prof. McMURRY: Both. In England, of course, it was white audiences, but she also spoke to white audiences in Boston and other places, too.
LAMB: You paint a picture in here of--from time to time of someone who was argumentative, angry, didn't get along with some people. I mean, give us that scenario. I mean, what was she--what do you think she would have been like to know?
Prof. McMURRY: Exasperating.
LAMB: Why?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, because she never compromised. She was, till the day she died, she was uncompromising. And it made many people uncomfortable because it made males seem timid and...
LAMB: Who's this in the picture, by the way? Is that her husband?
Prof. McMURRY: Oh, that's her husband and that's Alfreda Duster, her daughter. She was Alfreda Barnett at the time, who later was responsible for getting her autobiography published and also did a wonderful interview that's available, that is the best source on the Barnett family life, I think.
LAMB: Have you ever heard her voice?
Prof. McMURRY: No, I haven't.
LAMB: Is it anywhere to be heard?
Prof. McMURRY: It may be, I don't know.
LAMB: Did you ever read a characterization of how she would speak? I mean, what her diction was like?
Prof. McMURRY: Oh--oh--oh, you mean...
LAMB: Yes.
Prof. McMURRY: You mean Wells-Barnett?
LAMB: Yeah.
Prof. McMURRY: I thought you were talking about Alfreda Duster for a minute. No, I don't think there is any existing tape. There were a lot of people who described her style of speaking, which was constrained but impassioned. She was a--she had a difficult position as a lecturer because at that point in time in the 18--at least before the 20th century, it was kind of risky for women to speak out in public, period. They tended to get criticized for that. But she was not only speaking out in public, she was speaking out about sexually explicit matters, like rape. And so she felt like she had to maintain a very ladylike demeanor. And she usually used white newspapers and so forth to make her point so that she was quoting from the enemy kind of thing. But apparently, she was a very dynamic speaker.
LAMB: Go back to the beginning and her parents--you say that she lost them both at age 16, yellow fever. Where do you think she got this spirit that she had?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, I think somewhat--some degree of temperament was inherited. You know, I think genetically, some people are more combative. But I think there were a lot of factors that met--played into her temperament. She was the oldest child. And--especially after her parents' death, she had to really become--as she's listed in the sentence, is that--as the head of the household. She was angry because both of the gender roles she was expected to play, which she wouldn't really consciously admit to herself, but she balked at that. She also was angry at the treatment that African-Americans got. She really was just uncompromisingly militant.
LAMB: You have here in the beginning...
Prof. McMURRY: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...a dedication.
Prof. McMURRY: Uh-huh.
LAMB: And the dedication says, `To Allen W. Jones, who made a historian out of a housewife, and to John A. Edwards,' who has brought that historian much happiness.' Who are these two people?
Prof. McMURRY: Allen W. Jones was my major professor when I was at Auburn, and a wonderful mentor and responsible for me becoming an historian. He actually ran into me in the grocery store and got me into graduate school. And John Edwards is my husband.
LAMB: Now go back to the--the first part of this, it made a historian out of a housewife. What were you doing and what year was this?
Prof. McMURRY: I started graduate school in 1971, and I was...
LAMB: What had you been doing?
Prof. McMURRY: I'd been working as a customer service representative at a manufacturing plant near Auburn. And I just happened to run into him in the grocery store and he--this was actually earlier than '71, and what I really wanted to do was get pregnant. And so he finally got me to apply to graduate school and I got my acceptance and a positive pregnancy test the same week. And so I stayed home for a while with my daughter, but he kept calling every few months, saying, `Are you ready to put that mind to use?' You know, and things like--and he finally convinced me to go to graduate school.
LAMB: And where did you go?
Prof. McMURRY: To Auburn University.
LAMB: And what did you get? A PhD?
Prof. McMURRY: PhD, yes.
LAMB: In what?
Prof. McMURRY: In history. I majored in a--my major field was recent American history, but most of my research and most of my emphasis was in African-American history.
LAMB: How did he know that you'd be a good candidate for a PhD?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, I had come back to--I had been to Auburn for the last two years of my college. I went to Emory first two years and Auburn the second two years. And so I had been away and then came back to finish my work at Auburn, and I had him as a professor my last semester at Auburn.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
Prof. McMURRY: Yes, he is.
LAMB: And has he read your book?
Prof. McMURRY: Yes, he has. He was very instrumental in the first two, because I did a biography of Monroe Work, who almost nobody knows about, but that was my master's thesis expanded, and then my biography of Carver was my dissertation expanded. And, of course, he was there at the inception of both of those. But even after I graduated, he would call me or write me and say, `They're having a conference on such and such here. You ought to go give a paper on Carver,' and things like that. So he continued to mentor me even after I got my degree.
LAMB: What reaction do you get from African-Americans, a white woman writing about black people?
Prof. McMURRY: Mixed, but for the most part, I think fairly supportive. I know--John Hope Franklin essentially told me directly--he said, you know, `Don't worry about anybody who thinks you shouldn't be writing about black subjects.' He said, `You ought to be judged on the merit of your work than on the color of your skin.'
LAMB: Is he down there in--in your area?
Prof. McMURRY: He is--yes. We're all part of what they call Research Triangle. Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh are all in a very close radius and he's at Duke now. He was at University of Chicago for a long time, though.
LAMB: And John A. Edwards, your husband--where'd you meet him?
Prof. McMURRY: In Raleigh.
LAMB: How long you been married?
Prof. McMURRY: Two years.
LAMB: Just two years.
Prof. McMURRY: Yeah. I think about two--yeah, about two years.
LAMB: What's he do?
Prof. McMURRY: He's an engineer, only retired.
LAMB: And what does he think of all this attention to history and biography?
Prof. McMURRY: He's very supportive, too. I mean, he love...
LAMB: That's what you say here, `Who brought that historian much happiness.'
Prof. McMURRY: That is quite true.
LAMB: Who was Monroe Nathan Work that you wrote about?
Prof. McMURRY: He was a black sociologist and the significance of him was that he actually joined Du Bois' Niagara Movement, which was an anti-Booker T. Washington movement. But then--that was in 1905, but in 1908, he accepted a job at Tuskegee, and moved over to the Washington camp. So he was--actually had a--the only person who had a foot in both camps that became the major two divisions of power and tactics for African-Americans at the time. He also was very interested in Africa well before most African-Americans were.
LAMB: When you look back on Ida B. Wells' life, what worked? What moved people to do things and did you get any analysis from her about what she thought really mattered, the speaking, the writing, the marching, all that?
Prof. McMURRY: Her writing, probably, was the thing that was most effective because, you know, she could only give a limited number of speeches but there was certainly--she published numbers of pamphlets, as well as newspaper articles and so forth, but her speaking was very important as well.
LAMB: Did she make money from speaking?
Prof. McMURRY: No. No, they sometimes paid her expenses or something of that sort. But she didn't really actually make her money that way.
LAMB: Was she and her husband financially sound?
Prof. McMURRY: Yes, but they could have been a lot better off. Her husband was a lawyer who tended to specialize in the rights of defendants and so forth, and so he often took cases pro bono and actually even would pay the clients' way to court and everything else. And they even brought some of his clients into the house to live with them. So they gave away a lot of what they had. But he was--he had a certain amount of financial security because he was successful in law. As a matter of fact, he became a deputy state attorney at one time.
LAMB: And in the end, you say she lived to be 69.
Prof. McMURRY: Yes.
LAMB: What did she die of?
Prof. McMURRY: I think it was uremic poisoning or something is what the designation was.
LAMB: Was it quick or did...
Prof. McMURRY: Yeah, it was fairly quick. She'd been deteriorating, but just the year before, she ran for the state Senate and lost, so she was active up till the--practically the day she died.
LAMB: Well, you suggest that she only got something like 583 votes or something like that.
Prof. McMURRY: Yeah.
LAMB: Did she actually think she could win?
Prof. McMURRY: I don't know. I think one of the things that was significant about her is she felt that there were battles worthy to be fought, even if you couldn't win them. And to an extent, that's what she did all her life. She fought battles over everything that regarded black rights and also much in the area of women's suffrage.
LAMB: Compared to your biography of George Washington Carver, was this harder or easier?
Prof. McMURRY: Different. Carver, the sources were overwhelming because of his personal papers being so extensive and so forth. And he was much better known. So that it took a lot more work to tease the story out, even though she has her autobiography. Of course, that only tells one side and it kind of--it's--really reads more like a legal brief for her against all her critics, you know. So that finding the real her and finding information, the biographies, I mean, the diaries were great, too, but it still was much more difficult to pin down the information. So they were coming from opposite ends of the extreme, as far as research were concerned.
LAMB: Do you have another book that you're gonna do?
Prof. McMURRY: Well, I've got several kind of working in the back of my mind. The thing that I've launched into right now--or beginning, is a study--a comparative study of black leadership and the post-emancipation period throughout British America. I've just become very fascinated--this is my favorite time period for research, is the reconstruction and post-reconstruction period. And I've become so interested in black leadership during that period in the United States and the various forms and natures of it, and I also love the Bahamas. We have a boat and take it down there quite frequently. And so I started trying to figure out some way I could tie these two loves together and--so I decided I'd--I started to do something about blacks in the Bahamas. But I decided that it probably would be more interesting to do a comparative leadership approach.
LAMB: Have any opinion on who the best leader was from that period?
Prof. McMURRY: You mean the Washington, Du Bois, Douglass--best leader. Well, I think Du Bois ended up being the most effective, whether you consider it best or not, he was the most effective.
LAMB: Here's the book. It's a biography of Ida B. Wells by Linda O. McMurry. We thank you very much for joining us.
Prof. McMURRY: Thank you.


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