Anniversary of the Birthday of Ida B. Wells, Civil & Women’s Rights Activist

Today is the 153rd anniversary of the birth of famed African American journalist, speaker, civil rights activist and suffragist Ida Bell Wells.

photo of Ida B. Wells, c. 1893

Photo: Ida B. Wells, c. 1893. Credit: Mary Garrity; Wikimedia Commons.

As a journalist, Wells wrote for the Chicago newspaper the Daily Inter Ocean. She gained fame for her investigative reporting of lynching in the U.S., demonstrating that in many cases African Americans were being lynched as a means of punishing blacks who “didn’t know their place,” rather than as punishment for a specific crime. And, of course, she pointed out that rarely was any evidence used to justify a lynching even when a crime had been committed.

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In a harrowing story she wrote in 1893 titled “The Brutal Truth,” Wells chronicled the lynching of African American Sea J. Miller for allegedly murdering two while girls. There wasn’t a shred of evidence linking Miller, who was apprehended in Illinois, of the crime that had been committed in Kentucky – but, as Wells pointed out, the mob in Kentucky of about 300 unruly men had spent the day draining 30 barrels of beer while authorities were looking for a suspect, and the crowd was out for blood.

article about the lynching of Sea J. Miller, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 19 July 1893

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 19 July 1893, page 1

After describing in horrific detail the brutality of Miller’s lynching – being first hung, then shot repeatedly, mutilated, and his body burnt – Wells concluded her article:

Thus perished another of the many victims of lynch-law, but it is the honest, sober belief of many who witnessed the scene, that an innocent man has been barbarously and shockingly put to death in the glare of the nineteenth century civilization, by those who profess to believe in Christianity, law, and order. These and similar deeds of violence are committed under the protection of the American flag and mostly upon the descendants of the negro race. Had Miller been ever so guilty under the laws, he was entitled to a fair trial. But there is absolutely no proof of his guilt…

How long shall it be said of free America that a man shall not be given time nor opportunity to prove his innocence of crimes charged against him?

Ida Wells originally wrote for the Daily Inter Ocean, and later for the Conservator. Dig in and read her articles in both of these Chicago newspapers in GenealogyBank’s historical archives.

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Remembering the Amazing Life of Maya Angelou

Calling someone a “Renaissance” person is an overused – and overblown – term these days. If a rock guitarist paints a portrait, the critics gush that he is a “Renaissance man.” However, America – and the whole world – truly did lose a Renaissance woman on 28 May 2014 when the remarkable Maya Angelou died.

Born in poverty on 4 April 1926 in St. Louis, Angelou experienced and accomplished more in her 86 years than is almost imaginable. In alphabetical order, she was an: activist, actress, artist, author, dancer, director, composer, cook, editor, journalist, mother, musician, nightclub performer, playwright, poet, professor, prostitute, producer, screenwriter, singer, speaker, streetcar conductor and waitress.

photo of Maya Angelou giving a speech during the Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign, 18 September 2008

Photo: Maya Angelou giving a speech during the Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign, 18 September 2008. Credit: Talbot Troy; Wikimedia Commons.

An advocate for women in general and African American women in particular, Angelou was also active in the Civil Rights Movement. She was a friend of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, and a mentor to Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey. She maintained a large circle of friends and associates, including prominent politicians, activists, entertainers and writers. Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.

photo of Maya Angelou reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, 19 January 1993

Photo: Maya Angelou reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, 19 January 1993. Credit: Office of the White House; Wikimedia Commons.

She produced and directed movies, plays and television programs. Angelou wrote seven autobiographies (including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969), several volumes of essays and poetry, and could speak seven languages. She was recognized, appreciated and praised, receiving more than 50 honorary degrees and dozens of awards – including nominations for a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, and Emmy Award; winning three Grammys; and receiving the National Medal of Arts, the Lincoln Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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The astonishing extent of Angelou’s life accomplishments was mentioned prominently in her obituaries, such as this one from the Associated Press published in a Vermont newspaper – note she is immediately identified as a “renaissance woman.”

obituary for Maya Angelou, Bennington Banner newspaper article 29 May 2014

Bennington Banner (Bennington, Vermont), 29 May 2014

The Renaissance aspect of Angelou’s long life was also featured in the lead of this newspaper obituary.

obituary for Maya Angelou, Blade newspaper article 29 May 2014

Blade (Toledo, Ohio), 29 May 2014

Angelou spent much of her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, and this Arkansas newspaper published an extensive obituary about her, with this lead.

obituary for Maya Angelou, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper article 29 May 2014

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas), 29 May 2014

Obituaries are a key resource for family history research. Although vital statistics can be found in government and other official records, it is newspaper articles – and especially obituaries – that go beyond the names and dates to provide the stories of our ancestors, to help us get to know them as real people.

For example, later in the above obituary comes this little tidbit from Angelou.

obituary for Maya Angelou, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper article 29 May 2014

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas), 29 May 2014

The obituary from the Ohio newspaper above provided this detail about her first name.

obituary for Maya Angelou, Blade newspaper article 29 May 2014

Blade (Toledo, Ohio), 29 May 2014

This obituary from a West Virginia newspaper provided a story about the close relationship that Angelou maintained with Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader.

obituary for Maya Angelou, Charleston Gazette newspaper article 29 May 2014

Charleston Gazette (Charleston, West Virginia), 29 May 2014

And finally, this obituary from a North Carolina newspaper provided an insight into Angelou’s character.

obituary for Maya Angelou, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 29 May 2014

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 29 May 2014

It isn’t just obituaries that provide stories about our ancestors. GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives – more than 6,700 titles from 1690 to today – have more than 3,400 articles about Maya Angelou.

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Of particular interest in these online newspaper archives is GenealogyBank’s African American Newspaper Archives. From that collection we gain the following perspectives on Maya Angelou.

This African American Kansas newspaper said this of Angelou.

article about Maya Angelou, Wichita Times newspaper article 18 November 1976

Wichita Times (Wichita, Kansas), 18 November 1976, page 3

This African American New York newspaper reported on one of Angelou’s many speaking engagements.

article about Maya Angelou, Sojourner-Herald newspaper article 1 May 1998

Sojourner-Herald (Albany, New York), 1 May 1998, page 3

This African American Michigan newspaper reported on another of her speaking engagements.

article about Maya Angelou, Afro-American Gazette newspaper article 20 December 1993

Afro-American Gazette (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 20 December 1993, page 1

This African American newspaper from Wisconsin reviewed Angelou’s 1969 autobiography.

article about Maya Angelou, Soul City Times newspaper article 8 October 1970

Soul City Times (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 8 October 1970, page 13

As these examples from GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives have shown, obituaries and other newspaper articles can give us a fuller understanding of Maya Angelou’s remarkable life, broad experiences, and many achievements. Genealogy is about so much more than mere statistics; names and dates don’t tell the complete story of a person’s life. To better understand our ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in, we need the stories forever preserved in online newspaper archives.

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson & Rosa Parks Obituaries

During this October week in American history three pioneering activists died who had a big impact on American society:

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, American women’s rights activist, died at 86 on 26 October 1902
  • Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson, American baseball player and civil rights activist, died at 53 on 24 October 1972
  • Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, American civil rights activist, died at 92 on 24 October 2005

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. You can use historical newspapers to research their public careers and trace their family trees. The following old newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)

An activist from an early age, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was involved in the abolitionist and temperance movements—but the cause to which she primarily devoted her considerable powers was women’s rights and their equality before the law, especially the right to vote. She was instrumental in organizing the first women’s rights convention: the Seneca Falls Convention, a two-day meeting convened on July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York.

Over 300 people attended the women’s rights convention, whose highlight was the reading and discussion of a statement of women’s rights called the Declaration of Sentiments, primarily written by Stanton. After much debate, the declaration (deliberately modeled after the Declaration of Independence) was signed by 100 of the participants: 68 women and 32 men.

Of the 12 resolutions debated and approved at the convention, the most controversial was the ninth, written by Stanton. It read: “Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Women’s suffrage was a divisive issue and many of the convention’s participants opposed its inclusion, fearing that an element this controversial would weaken support for women’s equality. However, others argued persuasively in favor of supporting women’s suffrage—and in the end the voting rights resolution was approved.

Stanton met another pioneering suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, in 1851, and the two women were close friends and allies in the women’s rights movement for the rest of Stanton’s life.

This obituary was published the day after Stanton died.

Woman's Rights Loses Venerable 'Mother' [Elizabeth Cady Stanton], Denver Post newspaper obituary 27 October 1902

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 27 October 1902, page 3

This old newspaper obituary included a tribute penned by Susan B. Anthony: “Through the early days, when the world was against us, we stood together. Mrs. Stanton was always a courageous woman, a leader of thought and new movement. She was a most finished writer and every state paper presented to Congress or the state legislatures in the early days was written by Mrs. Stanton. I cannot express myself at all as I feel, I am too crushed to say too much, but if she had outlived me she would have found fine words with which to express our friendship.”

This tribute to Stanton was published two days after she died.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 28 October 1902

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 28 October 1902, page 6

It concluded: “Mrs. Stanton fell far short of her aim, in what she actually accomplished, just as Susan B. Anthony finds herself far short of the goal toward which she has struggled [the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was not ratified until 1920]. The world is not ready to grant their contention in its fullness, and indeed is still to a great degree hostile toward it, but the two remarkable women long ago won recognition of the principle by which they were inspired, and through that recognition extended the power of women in public affairs to a wonderful degree, and made great progress toward establishing women in a position more equitable with that of men so far as property rights are concerned.

“Work like that carried on by Mrs. Stanton cannot cease with her life, nor can it end when Miss Anthony, her illustrious co-worker, passes away. It is everlasting, and will constantly bring fresh benefits to womankind.”

Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)

A superb all-around athlete and a man of strong principles, Jackie Robinson is most remembered as the African American who broke baseball’s color barrier when he started a game for the Brooklyn Dodgers on 15 April 1947. Despite vicious racial taunts and threats, Robinson played the game with great intensity and excellence, gradually winning the respect and admiration of most of his peers and helping to advance the cause of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

During his 10-year baseball career, Robinson played in six World Series, had a lifetime batting average of .311, won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, and was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1949. He became the first African American player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame when he was accepted in 1962, in his initial year of eligibility.

After his professional baseball career ended, Robinson continued to break racial barriers with a series of firsts for an African American: baseball television analyst; vice-president of a major American corporation (Chock full o’Nuts); one of the co-founders of an African American-owned financial institution called the Freedom National Bank; owner of a construction company that built housing for low-income families.

Robinson died a much-respected figure on 24 October 1972 of complications from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease at the young age (for a prime athlete) of 53. After his death tributes poured in for the man who had accomplished—and endured—so much.

This tribute, published in the newspaper the day after Robinson died, told a story about his minor league playing career with the Montreal Royals that showed how much testing Robinson had to endure.

Fear of Failure Motivated Jackie [Robinson], Springfield Union newspaper article 25 October 1972

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 25 October 1972, page 32

“There was the exhibition game against Indianapolis, and Paul Derringer, the one-time Cincinnati ace, was pitching against Montreal. He was a friend of [Montreal Manager Clay] Hopper’s and he said:

“‘Tell you what I’m gonna do, Clay. I’m gonna knock him (Robinson) down a couple of times and see what he’s made of.’

“Robinson had to eat dirt to avoid a high, inside pitch his first time up, but then picked himself up and singled. Derringer decked him again the next time up, but Robinson bludgeoned a screaming triple to left-center.

“‘He’ll do, Clay,’ Derringer hollered into the Montreal dugout.”

This tribute to Robinson was penned by famed sportswriter Red Smith.

Unconquerable Spirit [Jackie Robinson] Pierces Gloom in Philly, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 25 October 1972

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 25 October 1972, page 70

Calling Robinson the “black man’s fighter,” Smith wrote: “Jackie Robinson established the black man’s right to play second base. He fought for the black man’s right to a place in the white community, and he never lost sight of that goal. After he left baseball, almost everything he did was directed toward that goal. He was involved in foundation of the Freedom National Banks. He tried to get an insurance company started with black capital and when he died he was head of a construction company building houses for blacks. Years ago a friend, talking of the needs of blacks, said, ‘good schooling comes first.’

“‘No,’ Jackie said. ‘housing is the first thing. Unless he’s got a home he wants to come back to, it doesn’t matter what kind of school he goes to.’”

This Jackie Robinson obituary article was published the day after he died.

Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson Dead at 53, Plain Dealer newspaper obituary 25 October 1972

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 October 1972, page 61

It included a tribute to Robinson from the head of baseball: “Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said Robinson was unsurpassed in contribution to sports. ‘His entire life was courage. Courage as the black pioneer of the game. Courage in the way he fought for what he believed.’”

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

When Rosa Parks, an African American woman in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her bus seat to a white person on Dec. 1, 1955, her act of resistance ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott—which in turn accelerated the Civil Rights Movement and forever changed America. It was not that Parks was too physically tired to move that evening, though it was the end of another long day working as a seamstress in the Montgomery Fair department store. Nor was she old and infirm; at 42, she was a strong and healthy African American woman. She had simply had enough of the city’s segregation laws that gave whites more rights than blacks.

Her arrest for refusing white bus driver James Blake’s order to give up her seat on the bus galvanized the African American community in Montgomery. Thousands of leaflets were distributed calling for a boycott of the city’s buses until the Jim Crow segregation laws were changed. The boycott was led by a young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., who soon rose to national prominence as a civil rights leader. After 381 days the segregation laws were finally changed and blacks once again rode Montgomery’s buses—but that victory was only the start of a movement much, much bigger.

The Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, and Rosa Parks went on to receive national recognition—including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

This 1955 news article reported on her arrest, fining, and the subsequent bus boycott.

Negro Woman [Rosa Parks] in Segregation Case Fined, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 5 December 1955

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 5 December 1955, page 44

The newspaper article about the Montgomery bus incident reported: “The woman was taken off a bus and jailed last Thursday night after refusing to leave a section reserved for white passengers. The [Montgomery] City Code requires segregation in all forms of public transportation and gives bus drivers police powers to enforce the law.

“Meanwhile, other Negroes boycotted city buses in protest against the woman’s arrest. Police cars and motorcycles followed the busses to avert trouble.”

This obituary and appreciation was published in the newspaper two days after Parks died.

Rosa Parks Inspired Generation, Register Star newspaper article 26 October 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 October 2005, page 1

It reported: “Attorney Vernita Hervey, a civil rights activist, said Parks’ defiance of Alabama’s Jim Crow laws sparked an uprising that ‘probably was the defining moment in African-American collective action.’”

To honor Parks, this drawing graced the editorial page of the Register Star.

editorial cartoon paying respects to Rosa Parks, Register Star newspaper illustration 26 October 2005

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 October 2005, page 5

Today there is even an American holiday in Rosa Parks’ honor.

Newspaper Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that can’t be found elsewhere—whether they are stories about our ancestors or articles about famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of online obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family tree and the famous people you admire most!