Why a US civil rights heroine has a blue plaque in Birmingham

Ida B. Wells was instrumental in spreading word of the horror of lynchings across the Atlantic

A civil rights heroine who fought to raise awareness of the horror of black lynchings in the US is remembered forever with a blue plaque in Birmingham.

A courageous and bold African-American woman, Ida B. Wells campaigned to bring the crime to the wider attention of people in America and, across the Atlantic, in Britain through her journalism and public speaking.

As editor of the Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, she used her platform to condemn the so-called People’s Grocery lynching.

In Memphis in 1892, three black men, who owned a popular store, were giving white businesses a run for their money. They were attacked and fought back but were later arrested. They never stood trial. A mob of white men broke into the jail, dragged them away and lynched them.

Wells’ public denouncement and articles on lynchings in the southern USA put a target on her back as a mob destroyed her newspaper and threatened to lynch her if she returned to Memphis.

Coun Yvonne Mosquito with the blue plaque honouring US race campaigner Ida B. Wells.
Coun Yvonne Mosquito with the blue plaque honouring US race campaigner Ida B. Wells.

But she refused to be silenced and instead took to the road to publicly speak about the crimes and re-published her articles into a pamphlet called ‘Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases’.

The accounts were among the first to reach beyond American shores and make it to British society.

Wells visited Britain twice, in 1893 and 1894, where she appealed for solidarity in Birmingham to rally against the crimes being inflicted on black people.

(Image: Getty Images)
(Image: Getty Images)

On May 17 1894, Wells spoke at both the Young Men’s Christian Assembly in Needless Alley (New Street) and at Central Hall on Corporation Street. Her display was admired by the press and Birmingham audiences but some were less keen to listen.

In a letter to the Birmingham Daily Post, a city councillor protested “against being expected to give [his] attention to matters of a municipal detail in a civilised country at a great distance” where “any interference…by English people would be an impertinence.”

In her response, Wells cited the work done by British moral agencies who “did much for the final overthrow of chattled slavery” and believed the people of Birmingham would “not be less willing nor too busy, to lend their moral influence to check what is fast becoming a national evil”.

During her visit to the city she stayed at 66 Gough Road in Edgbaston – where Edgbaston Community Centre now stands.

A blue plaque dedicated to Wells was installed in Birmingham in February 2019 unveiled by the then- Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Coun Yvonne Mosquito, and the activist’s great-grandson, Dan Duster, appeared via video link from America to see the unveiling.

Mr Duster was immensely proud of the unveiling of his great-grandmothers plaque.

“Her travels to the United Kingdom were significant in helping to sharpen her skills to fight for justice and equal rights,” he said.

“It was in the UK that she was able to further expose the international community to the extent, brutal violence, and reasons used for lynching that were taking place in the US.

“She established alliances that lasted for decades and learned about community organising, fundraising, plus creating women’s clubs and organisations for social justice.”