Woman with a Mission, Ida B. Wells


[Ida B. Wells portrait from the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, via Google Arts and Culture]

Her New York Times obituary — 87 years after her death — called Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) “one of the nation’s most influential investigative reporters,” part of the newspaper-of-record’s 2018 attempt to set the record straight by publishing biographies of women whose lives and deaths had been under-covered in the past.

The Chicago black history radio series “Destination Freedom” dramatized Wells’ life earlier — in its episode 41, titled “Woman With A Mission,” broadcast April 10, 1949.

The program opens with scenes of her strength and courage — establishing a lifelong pattern of fighting for people’s rights — when she was raising seven siblings after her parents died of yellow fever, and then (at least for a while) winning an early suit against segregation laws, as well as launching her first careers in teaching and writing.

Actress Weslan Tilden narrates, speaking as Wells herself.

“My mission was to resist tyranny wherever I found it,” Wells summarizes in the broadcast, preparing to expose graft and corruption in the Memphis schools and segregation in business.

“I found trouble, but I also found the truth,” she says. That night, the Klan deposits a corpse at her door. (Was that scene supposed to be literally true, or an acceptable way to make a point dramatically in a short radio play? Her pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch law in all its phases” provides more detail of what may be the case in question.)

Undeterred, Wells worked for almost 40 years as a journalist and activist, which included launching a major anti-lynching campaign with “Southern Horrors,” as well as writing for black-owned newspapers, and becoming editor and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in 1889.

Her somewhat belated obituary in the New York Times called her ahead of her time in both journalism and civil rights: “She pioneered reporting techniques that remain central tenets of modern journalism. And… took on structural racism more than half a century before… the 1960s civil rights movement.”

I knew author Richard Durham’s Destination Freedom series had profiled Ida B. Wells, but the first two online archives I found did not have a recording of that episode. Luckily, when I pointed out the omission in an Old Time Radio Researchers discussion on Facebook, collector Jerry Haendiges put a link to an mp3 copy on his public page at vintageradioprograms.com

“There were several excellent all-Negro radio productions in the 1940s and 1950s when segregation was still a part of American life. I think Destination Freedom was the best!” he wrote.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the New York Times featured Wells in an April 2018 article as well as its “women we overlooked” Ida B. Wells obituary.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1940s, civil rights, journalism, newspaper crusades, Race, true stories, women. Bookmark the permalink.

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