Ida B. Wells Began Life as a Slave, but Became One of the Most Famous Journalists in American History

by Josepha da Costa, age 15

Ida B. Wells is one of the most famous and respected journalists in American history. As a strong and influential Black women, she changed the field of journalism in many important and lasting ways. One thing that makes the story of Ida B. Wells so inspirational, even to this day, is that she began life as a slave.

Persevering through racism, sexism, and violence, Ida B. Wells used her writing skills and her platform as a well-respected journalist to shed light on the struggles of African American people—especially in the South. She was noted for her careful research, which contributed to her credibility on the national stage. As a journalist and activist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ida B. Wells inspired many to speak out against inequality and discrimination.

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was born into slavery on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Later, after the Civil War, her parents became politically active during the Reconstruction Era. Her father James Wells, was involved with the Freedman's Aid Society and helped to found Shaw University (renamed Rust College) where Wells-Barnett received her early schooling. [read more]

She Died at a Young Age, but Lucy Wilmot Smith’s Writing Remains an Inspiration to this Day

by Yani Thoronka, age 15

Lucy Wilmot Smith was born on November 16, 1861, in Lexington, Kentucky. She was one of seven children, raised by her widowed mother, Margaret, who worked as a housemaid. In spite of her humble beginnings, and although she died at a young age, Lucy Wilmot Smith grew to become an influential writer, educator, speaker, and journalist.

From an early age, Smith was subjected to the hardships her mother experienced being the sole provider of a Black household in the south. Opportunities to generate income for the family were limited. Recognizing her daughter’s obvious intelligence, Margaret worked hard to provide the best possible education for Lucy. Margaret herself was not able to read or write, but she valued education and hoped for a better future for her daughter. [read more]

With Journalism as Her Platform, Mary Virginia Cook-Parrish Influenced an Entire Nation

by Hanna Eyobed, age 15

Mary Virginia Cook-Parrish was born in 1862 in Bowling Green, Kentucky. During this period in history slavery was ending, but it was not at all forgotten. It was a time of very little justice for Black Americans. Hence, it was a terrible time to be Black. And it was usually even worse to be a Black woman.

As a young girl, Mary Virginia Cook-Parrish was a bright and goal-oriented spirit. She took advantage of every educational opportunity that presented itself. Her reputation of winning spelling bee and reading contests earned her a spot at State University. After graduating as valedictorian, Cook-Parrish went on to become a teacher, and then principal of the teacher training school at State University. That is where Cook-Parrish and Lucy Smith –- a fellow Black female principal -- started their lifelong friendship.

Smith and Cook-Parrish both had a passion about advocating for the rights of women. They believed women should be able to lead in the church and in society. Both these strong women were involved with National Baptist Convention, whose activities were very important at the time. They were motivated to empower women’s voices and always strove to create equality. Cook-Parrish eventually became vice president of the Baptists’ Women’s Educational Convention. She was a very determined women and Cook-Parrish implored others to join the cause of freedom. She was not afraid to challenge her counterparts. [read more]

Katherine Davis Chapman Tillman Loved Writing and Forged a Career as a Powerful Journalist

by Yoanna Hoskins, age 15

Katherine Davis Chapman Tillman was born in Mound City, Illinois on February 19, 1870. Although Tillman’s mother was teacher and taught her to read, the family didn’t have money for Katharine to attend a formal school until 1882, when she was 12-years old. That’s when her family decided to move to Yankton, South Dakota. It was during this time that her writing skills started to emerge. And from there, things just took off as Davis Chapman quickly decided she had found her calling--writing.

Tillman fell in love with poetry and at the age of 18 and she published her first poem in the Christian Recorder newspaper. As her love of writing grew, she published essays and poems in Black newspapers and other press outlets. She even published written work in the Indianapolis Freeman, one of the leading Black publications in America at that time.

And that’s where Lillian Parker Thomas Fox, another accomplished Black writer, most likely saw the work of Tillman. The poems and essays of Katharine Davis Chapman Tillman were often confrontational. She did not mince words and she was not afraid to challenge the bad things she saw in society at the time. [read more]

Mary Ellen Britton: Doctor, Activist, Scholar, and Journalist

by Leilani McNeal, age 15

When Mary Ellen Britton addressed the Eighth Annual State Association of Colored Teachers Convention in 1887, she started with a confession. The theme of her speech was women’s suffrage—a right, she admitted, she had not always believed in. Britton explained that the South she grew up in neither condoned nor supported equal rights for women. Human rights, not women’s rights, was the cause for which she had always felt compelled to agitate.

By 1887, Britton was already well known for writing articles about racial injustice in local newspapers. Mary Ellen Britton was deemed a “strong-minded” woman because of her opinions and her willingness to voice those opinions.

Born and raised in antebellum Kentucky, Britton enjoyed the privileges that her parents’ relatively comfortable status afforded the family, attending good schools and eventually enrolling at Berea College in 1871. But three years later, both of Britton’s parents died suddenly, forcing her to drop out of school to support herself. Britton spent this next period of her life learning how to navigate a world that treated women—particularly Black women—as a separate and decidedly unequal class within the labor force. [read more]

Lillian Parker Thomas Fox: A Preeminent African American Journalist with Deep Wisconsin Roots

by Kadjata Bah, age 15

Described as a “majestic” and “luminous” journalist, Lillian Parker Thomas Fox is one of many Black women who were pioneers in the field of journalism during the 19th century. Publishing her sharp and poignant writing across the Midwest, Fox aspired to direct “human thought forward.”

Born in Chicago, Fox moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin with her family soon after her birth in 1854. She was known to be an avid reader and devoted student until her studies ended abruptly during her third year of high school when she became engaged and married.

Nonetheless, Fox continued her intellectual pursuits. She wrote many articles for Wisconsin’s Black press, one of which fiercely called out American hypocrisy after the repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Fox wrote “You pity England with her Lords and Commons; Russia with its Czar and subjects, and yet practically acknowledge that you have a people among you of American birth whom you consider by God created for your servants, your inferiors by nature rather than by condition.” [read more]

Community Proposal Would Rename Falk Elementary School
For Local Journalist Milele Chikasa Anana

by Sydney Steidl, age 14

The staff at Falk Elementary School and other community members have announced a proposal to rename the school in honor of the late Milele Chikasa Anana.

This effort began in April of 2018 when it was discovered Philip Falk, a former Madison schools superintendent, at one time belonged to a student-run organization at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that had possible connections to the Ku Klux Klan. While the UW student group was not a chapter of the official Klan, this discovery called for a reevaluation of the values Falk Elementary School stands for.

Milele Chikasa Anana moved to Madison in 1970, and despite Madison’s reputation for being a liberal and accepting community, she immediately faced discrimination. When she and her husband moved to Hillcrest Drive, a burning cross was thrown at their home, along with a note saying that they “shouldn’t live with whites,” and calling them the ‘n’ word. Five years later, when she took the position of City of Madison Affirmative Action Officer, another burning cross was placed on her lawn. [read more]