Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and Racial Injustice in America

Jane Addams made the acquaintance of renown African-American journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells in the summer of 1899. The circumstance of these two extraordinary women in Chicago engaged in different but overlapping endeavors to make the world a better place is one of those remarkable and inspirational historical coincidences that reinforces my fascination with the past. I can only imagine the conversations that took place between such formidable activists as Addams and Wells, but I can feel the power of their connection to each other and their mutual respect for each other’s work. Wells regarded Addams “as the greatest woman in the United States,” and Addams admired Wells’ exposés on lynching and considered the controversial woman a friend.

It was Wells who inspired Addams to take a public stand against lynching. After a mob in Maysville, Kentucky, burned alive an African-American man on Dec. 6, 1899, Wells organized a mass meeting in Chicago to protest the violence, and she invited Addams to participate. After the meeting attendees passed resolutions of protest to send to President William McKinley, Addams delivered a speech. She condemned the mob’s murderous actions and argued that such violence “further runs a certain risk of brutalizing each spectator, of shaking his belief in law and order, of sowing seed for future violence.” It was a simple truth, she argued, “Brutality begets brutality.” The speech was an important public assertion of her support for African-American civil rights, and it was her first significant connection to the movement for racial justice.

Jane Addams, ca. 1910

Addams’ 1899 speech formed the basis of her argument for an article published in January 1901 in The Independent, a popular weekly magazine dedicated to social justice and reform. In 1900, there had been 101 reported lynchings in the United States, and the press coverage of these murders in all of their horrifying detail outraged many Americans, particularly reformers like Addams. In the article “Respect for the Law,” Addams again condemned mob violence and argued that it jeopardized due process of law and legal justice in any society that allowed it. However, in making her arguments, she assumed that African-American victims of lynching might be guilty of the crimes of which white lynch mobs accused them. In the early twentieth century, many whites, particularly in the South, argued that lynching preserved the legal and social order by deterring crimes committed by African Americans. Yet in truth, whites deliberately employed such violence to counter African-American resistance and to reinforce white supremacy. Lynching functioned as a terrifying message to African-Americans who dared step outside the boundaries of the proscribed racial hierarchy. Ida B. Wells had spent her entire career exposing the myth of African-American criminality, and she was disappointed in her friend for lapsing into this old “thread bare” argument.

Four months after Addams’ article appeared, Wells published a rebuttal in The Independent. While she did not necessarily disagree with the power and value of her friend’s “dispassionate and logical argument” against lynching, she did object to the critical and “unfortunate presumption” upon which the argument rested. Wells objected to the assumption that black men were “bestial” and “uncontrolled,” and she believed that Addams’ presumption reinforced the stereotype of African-American inferiority. For Wells, the sole purpose of the lynch mob was to strip African Americans of their civil rights and their humanity. She also argued that any assertions of a lynch victim’s alleged crimes were only “excuses” for violence and “that the figures of the lynching record should be allowed to plead, trumpet tongued, in defense of the slandered dead, that the silence of concession be broken, and that truth, swift-winged and courageous, summon this nation to do its duty to exalt justice and preserve inviolate the sacredness of human life.”

Addams and Wells were both brilliant writers, but they approached the serious problem of lynching from very different experiences and perspectives. It is not surprising that Wells, who had been born a slave and who had personally faced the threat of violence as a journalist in Memphis, Tennessee, more keenly understood the underlying racism that informed the violence. Regardless, every single lynching that occurred in America was abhorrent to both women. Even though the number of reported lynchings were in general decline from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, mobs murdered 4,761 human beings by lynching from 1882-1930, nearly all of the years spanning Jane Addams’ adulthood, and 3,386 of them were African Americans.

Thinking and writing about lynching and interacting with the brave and brilliant Ida B. Wells, solidified in Addams’ mind the significance of racism in America. As a result, Addams became a strong proponent of African-American civil rights. Although racial justice was not directly central to her social work, her efforts for child labor restrictions and pure milk, for example, were meant for the benefit of all children. Jane Addams was an important figure in the movement for racial equality, and her name in connection with the movement no doubt inspired others to come along, as well. With Ida B. Wells, Addams spoke out against an effort to racially segregate the Chicago schools and was, in 1909, a founding member of the NAACP. She supported the establishment of an African-American settlement house in Chicago, promoted the work of Professor W. E. B. Du Bois, stood up for African-American delegates denied a role in new Progressive Party in 1912, and protested against racial segregation in the federal government under President Woodrow Wilson in 1913.

As with all people and cultural groups, Jane Addams viewed African Americans as deserving of social justice, as intelligent and capable, as possessed of a rich and beautiful culture, and as worthy of a voice in the political process. She was not a perfect ally, and she stumbled at times to fully understand the depths of the racism of her era, but her mind was open and she understood as least as well as any other American of her generation that the promise of America depended on equality for all Americans. She was absolutely convinced that respectful interactions of all groups of people within a society was possible, that there was mutual benefit in those relationships, and that every American—including every working-class man, woman, immigrant, child, and African American—was entitled to social, economic, and political justice.

by Stacy Pratt McDermott

Jane Addams Documents for Further Reading:

Respect for Law, January 3, 1901

The Progressive Party and the Negro, November 1912

Has the Emancipation Act Been Nullified by National Indifference, February 1, 1913

Jane Addams, Thomas William Allinson, Cyrus Bentley, et al. to Woodrow Wilson, August 26, 1913

Sources: Jane Addams, Anti-Lynching Address, Dec. 12, 1899, Jane Addams Papers, 1860-1960 (microfilm), 46:965-68; Call for a Lincoln Conference on the Negro Question, February 13, 1909, Jane Addams Digital Edition; Ida B. Wells, “Lynching and the Excuse for It,” The Independent, 53 (May 16, 1901): 1133-36; Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Kristina DuRocher, Ida B. Wells: Social Reformer and Activist (New York: Routledge, 2017); Alfreda M. Duster, ed., Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979); Katherine Joslin, Jane Addams: A Writer’s Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016); Louise W. Knight, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010; Michael J. Pfeifer, Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Christopher Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America (New York: Palgrave, 2002); Thirty Years of Lynching, 1889-1918 (New York: NAACP, 1919).

Leave a Reply

Your email will not be published. Name and Email fields are required.