Steampunk Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Anti-Lynching, Anti-Victorian Crusader

“One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.” – Ida B. Wells-Barnett

At a recent history conference, I had the fortune of attending a plenary titled “Mightier than the Sword: Conversations on the Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” The panel featured historians Mia Bay, Paula Giddings and Patricia Schechter (among others), all of whom have authored works on the famed anti-lynching crusader. Though I’d studied Ida B. Wells-Barnett previously, during the discussion I was once again struck by her intense radicalism, which ran counter to the sensibilities of gender, activism and racial justice that pervaded the times. As often happens, my historian’s mind wandered into the speculative–particularly steampunk, where the Victorian Age’s analogous twin across the Atlantic, what Mark Twain satirized as “The Gilded Age” and well into the later “Progressive Era,” carried a violent dark side that Ida B. Wells-Barnett dedicated her life to revealing.

Diversity in steampunk–or lack-there-of–has been a popular topic in recent years. Within the speculative communities and the blogosphere, numerous discussions have been made on exclusions and the need to move beyond the simple framework of Euro-Victorian fashion and ideals. See the aptly named Beyond Victoriana and Multiculturalism for Steampunk for examples. A similar conversation has grown up among what historians often term “silences.” These are the things not discussed; those voices and issues that go ignored, either willfully or by mere lack of concern, but when pointed out are so blatant they leave us asking–how? How for instance can one glorify Britain’s industrial era with steam gadgets and goggles, and not pay attention to the rampant wealth inequality, built-in class distinctions, environmental hazards and crushing poverty that defined life for much of England’s urban poor and working class? How does one put on German, French and British military uniforms (complete with pith hats), proudly show off medals and rifles and not link it to colonialism,  the “White Man’s Burden” and race? How do you create a steampunk America in the 19th century and forget about abolitionism or, for that matter, the entire state sponsored institution of slavery? As in history, silences in speculative fiction, especially in the retro-futurism of steampunk, often tell us a great deal about how we remember the past–or better put, how we want to remember the past, and those things we’d rather not delve into, as they complicate or unsettle our national identities, self-perceptions and escapist imaginations.

Which brings us to the topic of Victorianism, racial violence in America’s Gilded Age and Progressive Era and the radical anti-lynching feminist activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who I will alternatively refer to as Wells.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, several months before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The oldest of eight children, at 16 years of age Wells was forced to take care of her siblings after both her parents passed away from Yellow Fever. Despite such responsibilities, she was able to complete her studies at Rust College and eventually become a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee.

Raised within the Victorian themes of the times, the young Wells fashioned herself in the mold of “noble true womanhood and perfect ladyship,” going as far as to temper her own anger which she deemed “unfeminine.” Wells especially took exception to what she perceived as the “wholesale contemptuous defamation of black women,” who were often depicted as sexualized Jezebels. “Among the many things which had transpired to dishearten the Negroes…none sting so deeply and keenly as the taunt of immorality; the jest and sneer with which our women are spoken of,” she wrote, “and the utter incapacity or refusal to believe there are among us mothers, wives and maidens who have attained a true, noble and refining womanhood.”

Historian Mia Bay notes that in these early musings Wells was dealing with issues of gender and identity confronting many African-American women of the day. How did one adhere to ideals of gender constructed around white supremacy? How could African-American women, deemed debased and immoral, possibly meet Victorian virtues reserved for white women? Bay argues that the struggle to reconcile these conflicts would lead her to eventually “unmask” the Victorian-derived sexual mores that white Southerners used to attack and restrict the rights of black men and women.

Wells’s first conflict with the restrictions of 19th century society came in 1884 at the age of twenty-one. Boarding a passenger train, she took her seat in the first class ladies coach. But the recent black codes, precursors to Jim Crow, forbid blacks in the car. When a conductor asked her to move, Wells refused, stating that she had paid for a first-class coach seat and intended to remain. When two guards forcibly tried to remove her, she left the train angrily vowing to see this matter through. The young Wells hired a lawyer and sued the railroad. To the surprise of the local white community, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad was ordered by a Minnesota Judge to pay Wells $500.

Uproar and bedlam naturally followed.

“DARKY DAMSEL GETS DAMAGES” was the headline plastered across the local Memphis Appeal. The railroad however appealed the case, which was overturned by an all white court who upheld the laws of black codes over the equality promised by the recently amended Constitution. In a reversal of justice, in the end it was Wells who was forced to pay $200 in court fees.

Given its time, the case was remarkable on several fronts. Not only was Wells challenging the racial barriers of the day, but as well the strict codes that had been erected around gender. As historian Paula Giddings reminded during the panel, this was not the “proper” behavior of women in an age ruled by Victorian sensibilities. Nor was it acceptable behavior in a society in which both class and race were fixed hierarchical identities into which various people could (and should) be categorized. Wells’s defiance of both gender and racial norms, as well a defiance of Victorian gentility, would define her later life of activism and struggle.

This early experience with the law pushed Wells to publish an editorial in a church newspaper, where she not only voiced her dissatisfaction with the case but also urged blacks to fight the recently erected black codes. Her publication increased the paper’s circulation and stimulated conversations among blacks throughout the South. In time a small black newspaper in Memphis offered Wells a part-time position as an editor, where she wrote articles on various subjects dealing with the black condition.

One of her editorials criticized the condition of Memphis’ black schools due to existent “separate but equal” policies. Memphis’ Board of Education dismissed Wells from her teaching position because of the article, which allowed her to take on full-time responsibilities at the newspaper. Within a year, her fiery articles had tripled its circulation. Black newspapers throughout the United States reprinted her articles and Wells soon became a name of some note. But it was a tragic event in 1892 that changed her life forever.

Three men, friends of Wells, were prominent black businessmen in Memphis. When angry whites, envious of their prosperity, attacked the store, the men defended themselves. For this they were jailed. But before they could be tried, a white mob took the three men from their prison and brutally murdered them.

A shocked and angry Wells immediately wrote an editorial describing the details of the events and chastising the city of Memphis for the lynching. The article sparked such outrage, the newspaper office was destroyed by a white mob and several of the city’s newspapers even printed written death threats on Wells life. While attending an editor’s convention in New York, she received word not to return to Memphis because her life would be in danger. Remaining up East, she worked as a regular correspondent for several black newspapers where she continued her attack on lynching. She sought regularly not only to publicize lynching incidents but to also dispel the myths white society used to legitimize their actions.

To understand the enormity of Wells’s task, and the danger of her work, it is necessary to take a glimpse into America at the time. With the end of Reconstruction following the Civil War, and the removal of Union troops, white southerners sought to turn back the clock. Blacks who had seen a brief attempt made at equal citizenship were removed from state and federal offices; stripped of the ability to vote; placed into prison gangs for minor offenses; forced into sharecropping labor that mimicked the old slave regime; and limited in their possibilities by black codes and Jim Crow laws.

To maintain this new-old social order of white domination, violence and intimidation was brought to bear. In Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, thousands of whites, angry at an editorial in a black newspaper that took exception with claims of pure white womanhood, exploded in several days of rioting. Reverend Charles S. Morris recalled the carnage: “Nine Negroes massacred outright; one man … was given the privilege of running the gauntlet up a broad street … while crowds of men lined the sidewalks and riddled him with a pint of bullets … thousands of men and women and children fleeing in terror from their humble homes in the darkness of night … within three hundred miles of the White House.”

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921, a white mob began a riot resulting in the destruction of the city’s prosperous black business and residential district. In Paducah, Kentucky, a black rape suspect was lynched by a mob which then allegedly murdered a black onlooker for “expressing sympathy” for the first. In East Texas, a father and his three children were lynched for the grand crime of harvesting the first cotton in the county that year. In Waco, a mob pulled a mentally-disabled black youth from a courtroom, burned him alive, and then sold his teeth as souvenirs.

Yet, this violence was not confined to the South. As early as 1829 a white Cincinnati mob drove more than half of the black population from the city. From 1832 to 1849 there were no less than five anti-black riots in Philadelphia. The most infamous of the day were the anti-draft riots of New York in 1863 during the Civil War. Enraged white citizens (mostly Irish) fearing the competition they were certain would come with a free skilled black work force, and angry at unequal military drafting policies, rioted for four days. Blacks were lynched from lampposts, raped, mutilated and shot in the streets of the city. Not even a black orphanage was spared, as a white mob burned it to the ground. In 1908 for six days whites rioted in Springfield, Illinois, killing scores of blacks and driving hundreds more from the city. The climax of this anti-black violence occurred in the Red Summer of 1919, as 26 anti-black riots left an unknown number dead from Chicago to Omaha.

While some of this violence was committed by terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the majority of the perpetrators were common citizens. These ritualized acts became not aberrations, but daily normalized life in America. Actor Henry Fonda, was 14 at the time when his father took him to a lynching: “It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen…My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope.” In Brooks County, Georgia a mob stormed the countryside for a week killing more than ten blacks. Among these was a pregnant black woman, Mary Turner who according to accounts by Walter White (at the time field secretary for the NAACP) was hung by her ankles, doused with gasoline and set afire, after which White reports her unborn child was cut from her stomach, and trampled to death.

In this macabre culture of normalized violence, postcards were made of black murder victims, and sold as memorabilia. Lynchings took on an almost festive atmosphere, that some have compared to a carnival. When black laborer Sam Hose for instance was killed by a white mob, his body was mutilated, stabbed, and burned alive in front of 2,000 cheering onlookers—men women and children; he was then hacked apart and sold piecemeal to souvenir seekers; his fingers and toes went for pennies; slices of his cooked liver sold for more; an Atlanta meat market, to W.E.B. Du Bois’s shock and dismay, proudly displayed his severed knuckles in its front window for a week.

Lynching became such a common part of American culture, that in 1915 D.W. Griffith would release Birth of a Nation, based on the book by Thomas Dixon originally titled, The Clansman. The film depicted blacks as brutes and rapists, predators of white womanhood and deserving of murderous vigilante justice. It was a sensation, drawing record numbers at the box office and touching off anti-black riots in several cities. President Woodrow Wilson even attended a special screening of the film at the White House.

This was one of the uglier faces of America’s Gilded Age and reform-minded Progressive Era, one of the many “silences” in our popular national memory. It’s no wonder then that in genres such as steampunk, which pulls so heavily on our historical memory, these moments are met with equal “silence.” Within mainstream steampunk works I have seen lynching mentioned rarely–a comic situation in the Will Smith version of Wild, Wild West, and in a soon to be published short by yours truly. Even for many black steampunk creators, lynching remains taboo. Retro-futures of well-dressed successful black inventors or haberdashers seem preferable to dredging up such a dismal past. Black steampunk after all is often wedded to a notion of power reversal, where the past is re-imagined to negate many of these dark moments. But in these silences not only is this chapter of American history not given its just due, but the courageous resistance of figures like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who stood against this tide of terror and violence, is also lost.

In 1892, Wells published a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, the first sociological treatise of its kind. In it she challenged the common belief that lynchings occurred because of attacks on white women by showing the numerous reasons most black men were lynched—which included everything from unpopularity to slapping a white child. In fact only a fraction (less than 20%) of those lynched were ever actually accused of rape; fewer were ever tried or found guilty. Wells contended that the underlying reasons whites resorted to lynching blacks was because they saw it as a tactic which would keep blacks “in their place.” Regarding the notion of the black rapist, Wells declared that what white male Southerners feared was that their women may prefer black men. Her life was put in constant jeopardy due to her activism, and it is claimed she took to carrying two loaded pistols–urging other blacks to do the same as a deterrent to white violence.

Though she received funding and support from various black women’s groups and some white radical philanthropists, Wells efforts did not earn her acclaim. Both Northern and Southern newspapers declared her a troublemaker, a “Notorious Negro Courtesan” and a “liar.” The New York Times named her a “slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress,” whose only goal was to make money on spurious claims. Neither did the black leadership class come to her aid, many finding her vocal activism  unbecoming. Historian Patricia Schechter writes, if there were to be reform movements during this era, many (African-Americans) “favored professional experts, well-funded national organizations, and men.” More damning still, Wells dared speak aloud of sexuality and rape in the public sphere–breaking with nearly every Victorian convention. In her attempts to mobilize rural and working class blacks, her detractors claimed she would unleash–in the words of one black critic–“a negro mob.” Black editor. C. H. J. Taylor of the Kansas City American Citizen, warned a fellow newspaper, “you had better put a muzzle on that animal from Memphis,” insinuating that Wells’s mother should have “changed her mind ten months before she was born.” For her fiery oratory, her penchant for inducing conflict, her exposing of controversial topics, the use of popular mass movements and other acts that ran counter to Victorian ideals, the anti-lynching crusader would pay with the loss of her home, her teaching career and continued attacks on her reputation.

But Wells was undeterred, vowing to continue her campaign and “that justice be done though the heavens fall.” Realizing she would have to expand her struggle, she took her cause to the heart of Victorianism itself–England–determined to shame America in the international community. It was there that she would run up against the white American suffragist and temperance reformer Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. If Wells brand of reform defied the Victorian era, Willard’s both defied it on the one hand (namely through her work on suffrage) yet followed its ideals on morality as well as fixed identities on race. Nowhere was this latter Victorian principle more notable than in the Progressive Era battle against alcohol. Singling out “alien illiterates” (namely Irish and German immigrants) and blacks, Willard railed against their inclusion in society and seemed to endorse the notion of a threatening black criminality (induced through alcohol), which was often used as a rationale for lynching:

“…is it fair that a plantation Negro, who can neither read nor write, whose ideas are bounded by the fence of his own field and the price of his own mule, should be entrusted with the ballot … The colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt. The grog-shop is their center of power. The safety of women, of childhood, of the home is menaced in a thousand localities at this moment.”

In England, Wells took to mocking Willard and the WCTU, pointing out the white women reformers were more concerned with trivial Victorian taboos against women gambling or dancing than with the very serious work of lynching: “during all the years which men, women, and children were scourged, hanged, shot and burned, the WCTU had no word, either of pity or protest. Its great heart, which concerns itself about humanity the world over was, toward our cause, pulseless as a stone.”

When hearing in 1894 that white Southerners in San Antonio, TX had placed a black woman into a barrel with “nails driven through the sides and then rolled [it] down a hill until she was dead,” Wells broke down, shedding tears at yet another “outrage upon my people.” Such acts only spurred her on, and that very year, working with local social and activist groups, she helped establish the London Anti-Lynching Committee. [while writing this, I ran across a steampunk look at British Anti-Racism, including Ida B. Well-Barnett’s role, by Evangeline Holland–good read] Her continued criticism would lead Frances Willard and the WCTU to openly denounce lynching, going as far as to pass a resolution against it. After one of her trips from England, in 1895 she published her grand treatise titled, A Red Record, which documented a history of lynching and their reasons since the post Civil War period. It remains to this day the definitive resource work on the topic during its era.

Wells’s work as an anti-lynching crusader took her into other reforms. She established herself as a leader of women’s rights, founding the Women’s Era Club, the first civic organization for African-American women. In 1909, she was asked to be a member of the “Committee of 40” which helped establish some of the groundwork for the founding of the NAACP. And in 1913 Wells marched in a suffrage parade for women in Washington DC, also meeting with President McKinley about a lynching in South Carolina. A dedicated journalist, after World War I she covered the large number of race riots in Arkansas, East St. Louis and Chicago, publishing her reports in pamphlets and in newspapers nationwide.

In 1928 Wells began her autobiography, stating that “the history of this entire period which reflected glory on the race should be known. Yet most of it is buried… our youth are entitled to the facts of race history which only the participants can give, I am thus led to set forth the facts.” As late as 1930, impatient with the sad state of Chicago’s black ghettos, Wells ran for the Illinois state senate, which she lost to the incumbent.

Wells activism didn’t end until 1931, when she passed away at the age of 68. And her legacy is vast. She is remembered as a powerful social researcher, activist, organizer and the most vocal anti-lynching crusader of her day. Her work would put names and photos to those murdered, shedding a light on these often forgotten acts of violence. Her legacy would be felt by W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP, who would rally fiercely against lynching for decades. It would stir a 1930s Jewish union activist and schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol, to write a poem called Strange Fruit, which Billie Holiday would set to song in 1939. It would inspire famed physicist Albert Einstein to join black actor/activist Paul Robeson in the American Crusade Against Lynching, which in 1946 marched on the White House, helping in part set the framework for the coming Civil Rights Era.

Some of the most forthright arguments I heard on the panel,  posited that Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s greatest contribution may lie in that she was one of the first modernist radicals of her times. While much of the other leadership of her era, from noted white suffragettes to prominent black figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, held fast to Victorian principles, Wells openly challenged them. She opened up what Giddings called a “discursive space” for the women’s movement, broadening the very meaning of “reform” and challenging the Progressive Era’s ties to staunchly conservative causes. In her activism, Wells may well be the missing link between the radical abolitionists of the mid 19th century and the radical black politics that would shape and define the Civil Rights Era.

For creators of steampunk, there is a wealth to work with in both Wells and the cause she championed. We have seen similar calls for other reformers of the era, as put forth in the call for Suffragette Steampunk by writer Cat Rambo. And I mean beyond mere bustle skirts and goggles. Does the age of steam have an anti-lynching crusade? Do Ida B. Wells’s pamphlets circulate the Atlantic on steam-powered zeppelins? How does her activism help more radical-themed steampunk continue to challenge Victorian notions of race and gender, or turn them on their head? Where does her movement fit into (and perhaps conflict, as in the case of some white suffragettes) with the other reforms of the Progressive Era? How would the sharp-minded Wells interact with many of the colorful fictitious characters of steampunk lore?

And why stop there? How do the well-dressed blacks who flit about in corsets and top hats deal with the realities of racial violence that threaten them each day? When Birth of a Nation hits the screens, are they forced to form black vigilance groups armed with brass ray-gun pistols and gas-powered rifles? Did the terrified black citizenry who fled anti-black riots in Tulsa or Cincinnati sail on airships to some new safe-haven? How about the vengeful black inventor who escapes a lynching, only to unleash some mechanical monstrosity on his/her past tormentors?

There’s much to be covered, that needs to be covered. And figures like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, as well as her life’s work, deserve renewed recognition. Speculative fiction gives us the opportunity to remove these histories from their silences and stitch them into new creative settings. All that’s needed is the will and imagination to do so.

References and further readings:

Mia Bay. To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells (New York: Hill & Wang, 2009)

Paula Giddings. Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (Harper Paperbacks, 2009)

Leon F. Litwack. Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (Vintage Press, 1999).

Patricia A. Schechter. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform 1880-1930. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001)

18 thoughts on “Steampunk Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Anti-Lynching, Anti-Victorian Crusader

  1. I am majoring in African American Studies at the University of Arizona. I really appreciated your post and information on Ida B. Wells. She seemed to be an inspiration to many!

  2. A Steampunk Ida B. Wells would be a wonderful concept to execute.

    And “Does the age of steam have an anti-lynching crusade?” That is the singular most powerful question I’ve ever seen questioning exactly how revisionist steampunk really is.

      • Thanks for reading. The sight of Tulsa survivors leaving in airships is poignant. But also, I wonder where they would have gone in a steampunk reality? And what new adventures might they have had? Sad, but also liberating in the possibilities.


  3. Pingback: Men in Black: A Lynching in Steampunk | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  4. Pingback: Radical Dirigibles- Black Socialists, Anarchists, Reformers and Airships | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  5. Pingback: Radical Dirigibles- Black Socialists, Anarchists, Reformers and Airships–Guest blog by P. Djeli Clark | Beyond Victoriana

  6. Pingback: Steampunk, Guns and the Imperial Mission | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  7. Pingback: Early Black Writers, Speculative Fiction and Confronting Racial Terror | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  8. Pingback: Tips for Understanding Black History Month- 2017 RESIST Edition | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  9. Pingback: A Steampunk May Day: Black Radicals, Anarchists, Socialists and Reformers – Phenderson Djèlí Clark- The Musings of a Disgruntled Haradrim . . .

  10. Pingback: Tips for Understanding Black History Month- 2018 Wakanda Edition | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  11. Pingback: Tips for Understanding Black History Month- 2019 Wakanda Redux Edition | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  12. Pingback: Tips for Understanding Black History Month- 2020 Edition | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

Share your thoughts, cuz I'm not just writing to hear myself talk....

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s