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.

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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Congress Passed the Amendment for Women’s Equal Rights in 1972

On 22 March 1972, 50 years of hard work by women’s rights activists finally paid off when Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). As soon as 38 states ratified the amendment within the next seven years, the U.S. Constitution would be amended with this statement:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

graphic showing the text of the Equal Rights Amendment: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

However, only 35 states ratified the ERA by the original deadline of 22 March 1979 (the deadline was later controversially extended to 30 June 1982, with no further state ratifications), and the victory that had seemed so close to the women’s liberation movement was once again denied. The ERA has been reintroduced in every congressional session since 1982, but has never again received enough votes for passage.

When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified on 18 August 1920 granting women the right to vote, some thought the women’s liberation movement was over because it had achieved its main goal. However, voting rights were only one form of equality, and women’s rights advocates pressed for full equality before the law. Suffragist Alice Paul wrote the first ERA: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction,” and it was introduced in Congress in 1923.

Showing the perseverance of women’s rights advocates and their supporters, the ERA was introduced into every congressional session from 1923 until 1970, when the version was introduced that Congress finally passed in 1972 – by wide margins in both Houses.

The following five newspaper articles are about the (what seemed to be) historic congressional action in passing the ERA. Some of the old articles are news reports of the congressional action, some record people’s reactions, and others are editorials either supporting or condemning the ERA. By providing details of some of the congressional debates and divisions over the ERA – as well as the public’s reaction – these articles give indications of why the amendment ultimately was never ratified.

This article reports the amendment’s passage.

Senate Passes Women's Rights Measure, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 23 March 1972

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 23 March 1972, page 1

According to this newspaper article:

“The National Women’s Political Caucus viewed the passage of the ERA as a major victory.

“The significance of women as a new and powerful political force is demonstrated by the overwhelming margin of passage of the ERA,’ said Rep. Bella Abzug, D-N.Y., co-chairwoman of the caucus.

“The caucus is now urging women in all states to maintain the momentum by pressuring for ratification in their state legislatures.

“‘Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do,’ said Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., in concluding his unsuccessful fight for a host of amendments. This brought a hiss from around the gallery which was dominated by women three to one.

…“Ervin, who led the opposition alone through three days of debate, said the amendment will create chaos in the nation’s legal system.

“But the proponents said this simple language of the amendment means equal legal treatment of men as well as women: ‘Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.’

“Ervin contended all laws requiring a father to support his legitimate or illegitimate children would be stricken from the books.

“But the amendment’s floor manager Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., said: ‘Most fathers have the primary responsibility of supporting their children not because they are fathers, not because they are men, but because they are the primary source of their family’s income.’

“Ervin said the amendment means the end of laws guaranteeing separate restrooms. Bayh said there are ample constitutional safeguards for this sort of privacy.

“Ervin saw the amendment as a blow to states’ rights. ‘State legislatures will be meaningless zeroes on the map of the nation,’ he said.

“Sen. Marlow Cook, R-Ky., said: ‘I was not aware states maintained their power by legislating discriminating laws against women.’”

This historical news article reports the defeat of an amendment to the ERA by Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., that would have exempted women from the draft.

Senate Votes Draft in Women's Rights, Mobile Register newspaper article 22 March 1972

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 22 March 1972, page 25

According to this news article:

“‘I believe if women want equal rights they should have them all the way,’ said Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill.

“In effect, senators declined the advice of the Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., who said the women’s rights amendment would create ‘great doubt, chaos and confusion’ with the draft and in the military.

“Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., proposed the draft exemption as an amendment to the women’s rights measure. But he urged his colleagues to vote against it ‘if they believe in their heart that women should be drafted and sent into combat where they will be slaughtered and maimed by the bayonets, bombs, bullets, grenades, napalm and poison gas of the enemy.’

“Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., manager of the amendment, did not deny women might see combat duty.

“‘If the country needs them I see no alternative but to require their services,’ he said, and they ‘will answer the call.’

“However, Bayh said, women would be eligible for all service benefits and be assigned as commanders see fit, just as men.

“Mothers could be exempted by federal law if the amendment passed, Bayh continued. And in any event the number of women drafted and assigned to combat duty, if the draft continued, ‘would be significantly less than one per cent,’ he said.

“This would be because some of them could not pass required physical tests such as doing push-ups.”

This editorial from an Ohio newspaper supports the ERA and urges immediate passage by the state legislature.

editorial about Ohio passing the Equal Rights Amendment, Plain Dealer newspaper article 26 March 1972

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 March 1972, page 40

This editorial states:

“Clearly, the equal rights amendment’s day has come.

“In many states there still are, in 1972, legal restrictions on women buying or selling property or conducting businesses.

“There still are laws setting different ages at which men and women attain legal majority or become eligible for retirement. Some states still have different jail sentences on the books for men and women convicted of identical crimes.

“Work laws and unemployment compensation requirements still treat pregnancy differently from other temporary physical disabilities. Alimony and child-custody laws are notoriously discriminatory.

…“It would be well for Ohio’s image and prestige if the state legislature acts immediately to ratify the prospective 27th Amendment.”

This editorial from an Alabama newspaper opposes the ERA.

editorial opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, Mobile Register newspaper article 23 March 1972

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 23 March 1972, page 4

This editorial states:

“Were the ‘Women’s Rights’ scheme made part of the federal Constitution, it would deprive women of exemption from military service, of safeguards (dearly won over the past two centuries) against bad conditions and hours of labor, and of benefits at law they now enjoy as mothers, wives, and widows. This is liberation?

“Senator Ervin endeavored in committee to substitute a proposal that would have prevented this eroding of women’s real present rights, and would have recognized physiological and functional differences between the male and female. He was beaten down by his timid or demagogic colleagues, who feared retaliation by the Women’s Liberation zealots.”

This article reports the opinions of women in Portland, Oregon, who opposed the ERA.

Women Voice Concern over (Equal Rights Amendment) Passage, Oregonian newspaper article 23 March 1972

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 23 March 1972, page 64

According to this historical newspaper article:

“Washington—The Senate vote Wednesday on an equal rights amendment for women sparked a flurry of long distance telephone calls from the Portland area to Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore.

“The calls came from women who voiced strong concern with the amendment’s effect on moral values.

“Hatfield staff members said the approximately 30 calls they received was the greatest number on a single issue since the vote on the supersonic transport.

…“‘They were mostly worried the amendment will destroy family life and would force women into a role they didn’t want,’ said Lyn Jenks, who fielded the calls for Hatfield.”

Historical newspapers are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors get involved in the fight – for or against – the ERA? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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Anniversary of Susan B. Anthony’s Death: Women’s Rights Crusader

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—in honor of March being National Women’s History Month—Gena commemorates the 108th anniversary of the death of women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony.

1920. That isn’t really that long ago. In the United States, women have had the right to vote in federal elections for less than 100 years. Depending on your age, there’s a good chance that your grandmother or great-grandmother spent part of her life without that right. Women today have many foremothers to thank for their work in securing suffrage. One woman, whose name is familiar to most of us, dedicated her life to suffrage—and like many of those who fought that fight, she never saw her dream fully realized.

On 13 March 1906 pioneering activist Susan B. Anthony died at the age of 86.

photo of women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony at age 50

Photo: Susan B. Anthony at age 50. Credit: Wikimedia Commons by Stmarygypsy.

When she was 52, Anthony was arrested, tried and convicted for the crime of daring to vote in the 1872 Presidential Election. She persisted in her efforts with unwavering dedication, declaring a few years before she died that national women’s suffrage “…will come, but I shall not see it.”

Her words proved prophetic 14 years after her death, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on 18 August 1920, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote.

photo of a petition from E. Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and others asking for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing universal suffrage, ca. 1865

Photo: petition of E. Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and others asking for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing universal suffrage, ca. 1865. Credit: U.S. National Archives; Flickr The Commons.

Quaker by birth, social reform causes were not unknown to her. Susan B. Anthony spoke her mind about various causes during her life including slavery, which she spoke out against when she was only 17 years old.

History of Woman Suffrage

One of the results of her tireless work is a book series, History of Woman Suffrage, which Anthony co-authored with fellow suffragists Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This set is not only a good history of the cause; it provides valuable information to present-day researchers on the dates women received suffrage on a local and state level. The series is available online through digitized books websites including Google Books and Internet Archive.

Genealogy Tip: Be sure to consult this book series to better understand what voting records may be available for your female ancestors.

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Obituary of Susan B. Anthony

When she died, Susan B. Anthony’s obituary was published in newspapers throughout the United States. Her obituary listed her many life accomplishments, including: lecturing in 1847 on behalf of temperance; her work towards the abolition of slavery prior to the Civil War; and her taking a “prominent part in the passage of an act in New York giving married women the possession of their earnings and right of guardianship of their children.”

obituary for women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 13 March 1906

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 13 March 1906, page 3

Even in death Anthony was breaking down gender and race barriers. An African American woman, Mrs. R. Jerome Jeffrey, spoke at her funeral, and the honorary pall bearers were young women from the University of Rochester. Anthony helped to secure coeducation privileges for women at that institution just prior to her death.

Susan B. Anthony (Lies) in State in Church, Baltimore American newspaper article 15 March 1906

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 15 March 1906, page 9

Even though she did not live to see women gain the federal right to vote, she had worked with women in other states that did enjoy suffrage in state and local elections. Women in the Western states of Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893), and Idaho (1896) were some of the first to hold the right to vote in state elections.

In 1920 the 19th Amendment was ratified after a 41-year-long battle. Originally penned by Anthony and Stanton, the text for the 19th Amendment was known as the Anthony Amendment. Years of women’s, and some men’s, hard work which involved marches, pickets, demonstrations, arrests, and even being tortured ended with the adoption of this sentence:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Suffrage Now Is a Law, Kansas City Star newspaper article 1 September 1920

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 1 September 1920, page 2

Susan B. Anthony’s Grave

Susan B. Anthony is buried in the Anthony family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. Abolitionist Frederick Douglas is also buried at Mount Hope. You can view her gravestone on the website The Freethought Trail.

Interesting history fact: Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving the amendment the 36 approval votes it needed to pass. However, some states didn’t ratify it until much later; the last state, Mississippi, didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984. That’s not a typo—it wasn’t until 1984!

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, aka Frederick Douglass

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to learn about one of the great figures in American history: the African American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.

—Frederick Douglass

Exactly 119 years ago today, on 20 February 1895, America suddenly and unexpectedly lost one of its most impressive abolitionists, reformers, orators, writers, statesmen, and advocates for equal rights of all people: Frederick Douglass.

photo of Frederick Douglass

Photo: Frederick Douglass. Credit: Wikipedia.

Wanting to know more about this great African American, I turned to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to look for old articles to learn about his life and times. I was not disappointed with my research findings.

This obituary of Frederick Douglas appeared in an 1895 New York newspaper. All of us genealogy fans can always appreciate a well-written obituary, and this certainly is one.

Death of Frederick Douglass, Irish American Weekly newspaper obituary 25 February 1895

Irish American Weekly (New York, New York), 25 February 1895, page 4

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey

Born about 1817 as an African American slave on the eastern shore of Maryland, Frederick Douglass was born with the name of Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He proceeded to spend his life breaking just about every mold people tried to force him to fit.

Runaway Slave & Man of Many Names

Douglass tried to escape slavery twice before he was finally successful, but once free, he was a wanted man. As a result, he had to change his name from Bailey, to Johnson, and then to Douglass—and as genealogy fans we can appreciate Douglass writing his autobiography, which helps us understand his changing name history.

Rising to Be a Famous American Abolitionist

Just how impressive was Frederick Douglass? Take a look at this article from a 1909 Chicago newspaper with its subheading calling Douglass “…One of the Sublimest and Most Noble Characters…”

The 92nd Anniversary of the Birth of Frederick Douglass, Broad Ax newspaper article 13 February 1909

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), 13 February 1909, page 1

Douglass rose from the hardship of being born into slavery and the cruelty of being removed from his mother’s care as an infant (which was a customary practice in slavery at the time), to finally managing to escape to freedom—and became, at the time, America’s premier African American voice against slavery. One of my favorite quotes by Douglass is captured in this article from a 1952 Kansas newspaper. It is short, but really powerful:

I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.

Frederick Douglass' Statement, Plaindealer newspaper article 11 July 1952

Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas), 11 July 1952, page 7

Facing Abolitionist Opponents

While we all wish this was the case throughout American history, we all know it certainly was not. For an unvarnished view of just how challenging Frederick Douglass’s anti-slavery stand was, I strongly suggest that you look up and read this article from a 1930 Kansas newspaper.

The Truth about the Great Frederick Douglass, Plaindealer newspaper article 30 August 1930

Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas), 30 August 1930, section: illustrated feature section, page 3

Running an entire page, this article often graphically relates what kinds of perils Douglass faced in his quest to speak out against slavery. Here is one horrifying example:

At Pendleton, Ind., the mob tore down the platform on which he was speaking. When the mob attacked him, he defended himself with a club until his arm was broken and he was battered into unconsciousness. When he regained it, with is arm in a sling, he insisted on speaking again.

Strong Advocate for Women’s Rights

Slavery was not the only cause that Frederick Douglass fought for. As you can read in this article from an 1848 Washington, D.C., newspaper, he supported the Women’s Rights Movement as well. Douglass spoke (he was the only African American invited to speak) at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, where he continued his strong advocacy for equal rights for women.

article about Frederick Douglass speaking at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, Daily National Intelligencer newspaper article 16 August 1848

Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 16 August 1848, page 2

Frederick Douglass Meets President Lincoln

This article from an 1864 Louisiana newspaper reported on Douglass meeting with President Abraham Lincoln. In a speech he gave afterward, Douglass said:

Now, you will want to know how I was impressed by him [Lincoln]. He impressed me as being just what every one of you have been in the habit of calling him—an honest man.

article about Frederick Douglass meeting President Abraham Lincoln, New Orleans Tribune newspaper article 26 July 1864

New Orleans Tribune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 26 July 1864, page 2

This old article from an 1891 Nebraska newspaper reported that Frederick Douglass advised President Lincoln on the Emancipation Proclamation, and was appointed the U.S. Minster to Hayti (now Haiti).

He (Frederick Douglass) Advised the (Emancipation) Proclamation, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 7 August 1891

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 7 August 1891, page 4

His Home a National Historic Site

Moving toward more current times, the Douglass family home, known as Cedar Hill, became a National Historic Site and a part of our National Park Service, as you can read in this article from a 1972 Wisconsin newspaper.

(Frederick) Douglass Honored, Milwaukee Star newspaper article 24 February 1972

Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 24 February 1972, page 10

Frederick Douglass’ Newspaper

Note: one of the historical newspapers in GenealogyBank’s collection is the very newspaper edited and published by Frederick Douglass himself! It is the Frederick Douglass’ Paper (Rochester, New York), where you can read entire issues of this newspaper from 1847 to 1860.

I’d encourage you to take some time, delve into the newspapers of GenealogyBank’s online collection, and really investigate Frederick Douglass, one of America’s finest!

Eleanor Roosevelt’s ‘My Day’ Newspaper Column: A Public Diary

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about Eleanor Roosevelt’s popular and long-running newspaper column, “My Day.”

When you think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt what comes to mind? Maybe it’s the fact that he was the only U.S. president to be elected to four terms. Maybe you’re familiar with the programs he helped to establish during the Depression, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Maybe you remember the words from his speech after the attack on Pearl Harbor, calling it “a date which will live in infamy.” Our 32nd president led the nation during the difficult times of the Great Depression and World War II.

What do you know about his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt? She was a crusader for many political and social issues, including women’s and civil rights. Mrs. Roosevelt has a long list of accomplishments in her own right apart from being a first lady. Starting in late 1935 she became one of the most-documented first ladies in U.S. history, due to the fact that she began a syndicated newspaper column that she personally wrote. Eleanor worked on her column “My Day” six days a week, from 1935 to 1962, writing about her daily activities and giving her views on a range of subjects.

This 1935 newspaper notice announced the upcoming “My Day” newspaper column.

Roosevelt Columns, Plain Dealer newspaper article 30 December 1935

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 30 December 1935, page 7

Many of Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper columns read like diary entries. In some cases, they resemble a letter to a dear friend—filled with her thoughts, conversations and opinions.

Her newspaper columns addressed many different topics; not all were especially poignant. For example, in one early column she discusses how much sleep she got and describes eating a tray of food by herself in her room. But looking at the totality of the columns helps paint a picture of the United States through the mid-20th century, reflecting the important issues our families faced such as war, poverty and racism. These “My Day” columns provide researchers with a social history of life during this time.

One issue that Eleanor Roosevelt was passionate about was civil rights. In her 21 February 1936 column, she mentions that she and her husband enjoyed a concert by African American singer Marian Anderson.

My Day in the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 21 February 1936

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 21 February 1936, page 6

Three years later in February 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt quit the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) over their refusal to allow Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall. At that time the Hall was segregated and the DAR refused to allow African Americans to perform there.

In her resignation letter, Mrs. Roosevelt stated:

“However, I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”

You can view a copy of that DAR resignation letter on the National Archives website.

Thanks to the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and other like-minded individuals, Marian Anderson eventually sang at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR in 1942.

photo of Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson

Photo: Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson in Japan. Credit: Flickr: The Commons, U.S. National Archives.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s 27-year newspaper column spanned her time as first lady, when she became a widow, and when she worked with the United Nations. One of her only breaks from writing the columns was in the days following her husband’s death on 12 April 1945.

In her last column, which ran 26 September 1962, Eleanor was once again addressing the issue of civil rights. In that column she discussed the issue of desegregating the schools, saying:

“In the same way, we must realize that however slow the progress of school integration in the South, analogous situations exist over and over again in the Northern states. There the problem of school desegregation is closely tied to desegregation of housing; certainly we are not doing any kind of job that we could hold out as an example to our Southern neighbors.”

With that discussion Eleanor’s “My Day” column came to an end.* She died two months later on 7 November 1962 at the age of 78.

* “My Day” by Eleanor Roosevelt, 26 September 1962. Available on the website My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt. Prepared by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project.