Born during the American Civil War, about the time of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Ida B. Wells was witness to the initial promise and subsequent failure of Reconstruction. Her earliest memories were of her father as a local black activist in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and of her mother as a woman determined to see her children live a better life. When Wells was sixteen years old, they both died from yellow fever, leaving her to support her siblings. In They Say: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race, historian James West Davidson tells how she transformed herself from a teacher with Victorian attitudes to a crusading journalist dedicated to exposing racial injustice.
As a reader, I enjoy how Davidson weave many colorful details into this small book. He tells us how Wells attended as many as three or four chruch services on Sundays when she first moves to Memphis. He describes the rotten wooden streets in the city and the towers of hay along the docks after regional harvests. He quotes Wells saying that she was "unladylike" at a baseball game and moved by the character of Koko in The Mikado. I see Wells as a person with charms and flaws, not a historical figure.
Central to the story is an incident in which three blacks are executed by a mob for an incident that may have been a set up. For reporting on it and questioning the validity of rape charges in many of the lynchings across the South, Wells has to flee death threats in Memphis. Then she becomes famous lecturing in the Northeastern U.S. and in England on the injustice of Southern lynchings.
Using Wells as the focus, Davidson tells a story of increasing racial violence across the country in the late nineteenth century. He stops the story at the point Wells becomes a full time advocate for racial justice. Many readers will enjoy this lively coming of age story.
Davidson, James West. They Say: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race. Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 9780195160208.