The Equal Rights League,
Excerpt from Crusade for Justice

Ida B. Wells-Barnett,
(1862-1931)




In the fall of 1915 a committee appointed to wait upon President Wilson in Washington, D.C., called his attention to the segregation enforced in the departments of the government, and asked him to use his influence as president of the United States in abolishing discrimination based on the color line. I was a member of the committee, which was led by Mr. William Monroe Trotter of Boston, executive secretary of the National Equal Rights League.

President Wilson received us standing, and seemingly gave careful attention to the appeal delivered by Mr. Trotter. At its conclusion he said he was unaware of such discrimination, although Mr. Trotter left with him an order emanating from one of his heads of the department, which forbade colored and white clerks to use the same restaurants or toilet rooms. The president promised to look into the matter and again expressed doubt as to the situation.

As the only woman on the committee I was asked to make some comment, but I contented myself with saying to the president that there were more things going on in the government than he had dreamed of in his philosophy, and we thought it our duty to bring to his attention that phase of it which directly concerned us.

The year went by and no word was received from the president, nor was any action taken by him on the matter. Again I was asked to be one of the committee to visit him, but it was not convenient for me to do so. However, Mr. Trotter and his committee made their visit. It seems that the president became annoyed over Mr. Trotter's persistent assertion that these discriminations still were practiced and that it was his duty as president of the United States to abolish them. President Wilson became very angry and he told the committee that if they wanted to call on him in the future they would have to leave Mr. Trotter out.

The Associated Press sent the incident throughout the country, and many papers heralded the assertion that "Mr. Trotter had insulted President Wilson." I knew very well that there had been no breach of courtesy, but that President Wilson had simply become annoyed at Mr. Trotter's persistence. Many of our colored newspapers followed the lead of the white ones and condemned Mr. Trotter's action. The Negro Fellowship League extended him an invitation to visit Chicago and deliver our emancipation address.

We thought that the race should back up the man who had the bravery to contend for the rights of his race, instead of condemning him. Mr. Trotter had never been West; and I thought that he needed to get out in this part of the country and see that the world didn't revolve around Boston as a hub, and we were very glad to give him an opportunity to do this.

We engaged Orchestra Hall and were forced to charge an admission fee to pay that three-hundred-dollar rental. Again I believed that the loyalty of our people would assert itself and that the encouragement we would give to this young leader would be of great service to him and to the race. We did this all the more readily because the city of New York, which had already engaged him to appear, had recalled its invitation. It so happened that our celebration fell on Saturday night, the first of January being Sunday.

It also happened to be one night in the year in which all our churches have watch night meetings. Some of the ministers urged their congregations not to attend the Orchestra Hall meeting because they were having services in their churches. One of the leading ministers had announced that he too had a national speaker and they would not have to pay anything to hear him.

Still others announced that Mr. Trotter was a Democrat and that they owed him no support. Suffice it to say that the meeting was a failure in attendance. Had I not been able to have a white friend stand for the rent I would have been unable to open the doors of the hall. We held our meeting, however, and both Mr. William Thompson and Chief Justice Olsen, tentative candidates for mayor, also made short addresses.

Mr. Trotter was my guest for ten days. Through the efforts of friends he was invited to other meetings, and thus we succeeded in giving him the one hundred dollars I had promised. Not only this, but we made engagements for him as far north as Saint Paul, Minnesota; as far west as Omaha, Nebraska; as far south as Saint Louis, Missouri. When Mr. Trotter returned East it was with the assurance that the West had approved his course and upheld his hands.

The National Equal Rights League met in New York City, 20 September 1917, and I was the guest of Madam C. J. Walker when I went on as a delegate. Nothing startling took place in this session except that Madam Walker entertained the entire delegation royally. She was a woman who by hard work and persistent effort had succeeded in establishing herself and her business in New York City. She already had a town house, beautifully furnished, and had established beauty parlors and agents in and around New York City, thus giving demonstration of what a black woman who has vision and ambition can really do.

Madam Walker was even then building herself a home on the Hudson at a cost of many thousands of dollars. We drove out there almost every day, and I asked her on one occasion what on earth she would do with a thirty-room house. She said, "I want plenty of room in which to entertain my friends. I have worked so hard all of my life that I would like to rest."

I was very proud of her success, because I had met Madam Walker when she first started out eleven years before. I was one of the skeptics that paid little heed to her predictions as to what she was going to do. She had little or no education, and was never ashamed of having been a washerwoman earning a dollar and a half a day. To see her phenomenal rise made me take pride anew in Negro womanhood.

She maintained a wonderful home on 136th Street, and she had learned already how to bear herself as if to the manner born. She gave a dinner to the officers of the Equal Rights League and left the meeting a short time before it adjourned, in order to oversee dinner arrangements. When we were ushered into the dining room, Madam sat at the head of her table in her décolleté gown, with her butler serving dinner under her directions.

I was indeed proud to see what a few short years of success had done for a woman who had been without education and training. Her beautiful home on the Hudson was completed the next year, when Madam took possession, surrounded by prominent people from all over the country. It is a great pity to have to remember that she was permitted to enjoy its splendors less than a year after she moved in. Seven months from the day in which its doors were opened, they laid her away in her grave. The life had been too strenuous and the burden had become too heavy.

The next year the Equal Rights League came to Chicago for its annual meeting at my invitation. The trend of events seemed to show that the world war would not last much longer, and a motion prevailed that we call a national meeting to be held in Washington in December to arrange to send delegates to France to attend the Peace Conference which must follow the close of the war.

The idea met with great favor among the people of the country. And delegates were sent to Washington, at which time delegates and alternates were elected to go to Versailles, for the Armistice had already been signed between the close of the National Equal Rights League meeting in Chicago and the meeting of the Democracy Congress in Washington in December. Madam Walker and myself were the two women elected to go, and there were seven other persons. But none of us got to go because President Wilson forbade it.

The committee which was chosen to bring in nominations at first left out Mr. Trotter, on the ground that his presence would be objectionable to President Wilson. I asked the committee if they were going to allow President Wilson to select our delegates, and whom did they think deserved the right to go if not the man whose brain had conceived the idea. When the committee's report was brought in Mr. Trotter's name was included among those whose expenses were to be paid. Madam Walker and myself had been chosen as alternates with the distinct understanding that we would have to pay our own expenses.

I got the floor on a question of personal privilege and thanked the congress for the honor it had done me, but I regretted that the years I had spent in fighting the race's battles had made me financially unable to accept the honor which they had offered me. I therefore declined with thanks. Immediately a clamor arose; the committee's report was halted and an amendment was made by which both of the women named were included on the list of regular delegates.

Only Mr. Trotter got across after all, and he did so by subterfuge. He disguised himself as a cook and went across on a ship after he as well as the rest of us had been refused a passport.

Not only had I been elected by the Democracy Congress as a delegate, but Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association had already elected me in New York nearly a month before the convening of our congress. Mr. Garvey had visited Chicago a few years before, when he had recently come from Jamaica to accept an invitation that had been extended him by Booker T. Washington to visit Tuskeegee.

Mr. Washington had passed away before he came; so Mr. Garvey was traveling from place to place to arouse the interest of other West Indians who were living in the United States to assist him in establishing an industrial school in Jamaica. He visited my husband's law office, and Mr. Barnett brought him home to dinner.

In the course of his conversation he said that ninety thousand of the people on the island of Jamaica were colored, and only fifteen thousand of them were white; yet the fifteen thousand white people possessed all the land, ruled the island, and kept the Negroes in subjection. I asked him what those ninety thousand Negroes were thinking about to be dominated in this way, and he said it was because they had no educational facilities outside of grammar-school work. He wanted to return to his native home to see if he could not help to change the situation there.

Instead he went to New York, began to hold street meetings, and got many of his fellow countrymen as well as American Negroes interested in his program of worldwide Negro unity. For a time it seemed as if his program would go through. Undoubtedly Mr. Garvey made an impression on this country as no Negro before him had ever done. He has been able to solidify the masses of our people and endow them with racial consciousness and racial solidarity.

Had Garvey had the support which his wonderful movement deserved, had he not become drunk with power too soon, there is no telling what the result would have been. Already the countries of the world were beginning to worry very much about the influence of his propaganda in Africa, in the West Indies, and in the United States. His month-long conference in New York City every August, bringing the dusky sons and daughters of Ham from all corners of the earth, attracted a great deal of attention.

It was during this time that he sent me an invitation to come to New York to deliver an address. I accepted the invitation and was met by him at the train on the afternoon of the evening on which I was to appear. The Universal Negro Improvement Association no longer met on the streets. It was housed in the Manhattan Casino, and I talked to an audience of nearly three thousand persons that evening.

Before this Mr. Garvey had spent a couple of hours acquainting me with his idea of establishing what he called the Black Star Line. He wanted me to present the matter that night, but I told him that it was too big an idea and would require more thought and preparation before it should be launched. He had shown me the restaurant that had been established, the newspaper which was circulating regularly each week, and own or two smaller ventures. He had complained that none of them were self-sustaining because they had not been able to obtain efficient help.

I knew that the work involved in a shipping business called for a much more complicated program than he had helpers to carry out, and I advised him to defer the matter. This he did not do, but presented himself after I had finished my talk, with that eloquence for which he was so famous, and it took among that people like wildfire.

Perhaps if Mr. Garvey had listened to my advice he need not have undergone the humiliations which afterward became his. Perhaps all that was necessary in order to broaden and deepen his own outlook on life. It may be that even though he has been banished to Jamaica the seed planted here will yet spring up and bring forth fruit which will mean the deliverance of the black race--that cause which was so dear to his heart.





Text Source: Excerpted from Alfreda M. Duster, ea., Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 375-382.

Text Retrieved from:  Jill Dieselman's Equal Rights Page

Picture Source:  Just the Arti-FACTS



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