From slavery to journalism that shook up a nation
TO KEEP THE WATERS TROUBLED: THE LIFE OF IDA B. WELLS By Linda O. McMurry Oxford University Press 400 pp., $35
Ida B. Wells should be an American heroine, mentioned in every high school and college history textbook, a name well-known in every household. Instead, she's barely known at all.
Her civil-rights crusades, her superb journalism, and most of all, her anti-lynching campaign, would be amazing even if Wells had led a privileged childhood. But to realize that a girl born into slavery in Mississippi during the Civil War then orphaned as a teenager could gain an education and eventually have a huge impact on racial violence boggles the mind.
It would be pleasant to think that Linda O. McMurry's biography of Wells will change everything. But it probably will not. Biographies of unfamous people published by scholarly presses usually sell only a few thousand copies. Also, the biography, while well-researched, lacks a compelling writing style and often loses the importance of Wells's works in disconnected detail.
Those criticisms noted, the book is still worth reading. After all, there is no previous biography of Wells that tells her life better. McMurry, who has written a biography of African-American scientist George Washington Carver, deserves an A for effort on the Wells book.
McMurry decided to emphasize the first half of Wells's adult life, given the availability of her subject's autobiography, which emphasizes the later decades. That was a wise choice because McMurry works hard to show how a young, black woman with almost no hope for formal education achieved schooling and then used her learning to reach out.
McMurry describes Wells's civil-rights lawsuit against a railroad company that expelled her from a first-class coach seat in 1883; her editorship of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper; and her anti-lynching campaign.
Wells was a great reporter, giving names and faces to lynched black men, many of whom had been falsely accused of raping Caucasian women. She published names and titles of those carrying out the lynchings. She showed that lynching was a nationwide problem, not an isolated local phenomenon.
McMurry looks into Wells's personal life, too. She reared her younger siblings after becoming an orphan at age 16; she put off man after man with her ferocious intellect and aggressive manner; and she eventually married after age 30 and enjoyed motherhood without halting her crusade.
Wells, first and foremost, fought for the rights of her race. She also fought for the rights of her gender. Most of all, she can be described as a crusader for human rights. Wells had her imperfections, which McMurry does not cover up, but she inspired those around her.
It would be sweet justice if McMurry's biography helped carry Wells's message to the current generations who need to see the way to a color-blind, gender-blind society.
*Steve Weinberg lives in Columbia, Mo., and is writing a biography of muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell (1857-1944).