Ida B. Wells Was an Reporter, Activist, and Leader. She Also Had Great Hair

Over one hundred years ago, Ida B. Wells became one of the leaders in the fight for women’s suffrage. In 1913, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first all-Black suffrage club in the state of Illinois. It was influential in the 1914 election of Oscar De Priest as the first Black alderman in Chicago. Shortly after forming the club, Wells traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the famed suffrage parade that March; as a Black woman, she’d been told to stand in the back—a request she defied. Wells inserted herself front and center, walking with the Illinois delegation. That’s a story you might know. What’s less appreciated is that she did it wearing her natural hair.  

I have been thinking about Wells a lot over these past few months. On January 20, I watched Senator Kamala Harris be sworn in as Vice President of the United States. Like millions of other women of color, I was thrilled to see the historical significance of Harris as a “first” realized. But I also felt a unique tug. Because Wells, who had spent almost all of her adult life fighting for this moment to be possible, was my great-grandmother. She died 90 years before it happened. 

The fact of Wells’ hair all those decades ago might not seem remarkable, especially in the context of just how much she achieved and fought for. But even now—no matter what Black women accomplish—our looks and hair continue to be subject to policy debates, legal battles, dress codes, political interpretations, and ideas about what is considered professional or not. In addition to having our work held up to different standards than our white counterparts, Black women have to endure a higher level of personal scrutiny in professional settings. We have had to navigate a racialized beauty hierarchy that prioritizes European features as ideal.

Ida B. Wells fought against white supremacy, domestic terrorism, segregation, and educational and economic inequality. And she did so while wearing her hair in its natural state. She kept her chin up and her hair styled, often adorned with pins, barrettes, and beautiful combs. 

As an orphan and later a single woman, Ida B. Wells navigated physical dangers while refusing to shrink herself in a world that criminalized blackness. Compared to her historic achievements as an investigative journalist and activist, her hair might seem like a minor point, but it was in fact a quiet, constant public statement: She took pride in her appearance. Black women’s natural hair can be straight, wavy, curly, coily, or what some call kinky. It can range in color from sandy blonde to jet black. It can grow almost to our waists or be cropped close to our heads. Our thick natural hair can be formed into cornrows, box braids, micro braids, afros, pixie cuts, bobs, twists, locs, twist outs, and buzz cuts. Black women use shampoos, conditioners, hair oil, hair lotion, vitamin oils, detanglers, curlers, rods, beads, clips, hairpins and more. We’ve spun our hair into every style imaginable, including some truly gravity-defying geometric designs.

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Ida B. Wells’ commitment to wearing her hair in its natural state is just one more aspect of her legacy that connects her to some of the Black women blazing trails now. The activism of Stacey Abrams, who wears her hair in twists, helped pave the way for political victory in Georgia. Rather than shrink into obscurity after her contested defeat for governor in 2018, she created organizations that empowered the Black electorate. Her efforts contributed to the ultimate Democratic control of the U.S. senate with the elections of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. 

At the inauguration, millions of people were introduced to 2017 national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman—a 22-year-old woman with a powerful message woven into her poem “The Hill We Climb.” Gorman’s poem paid homage to the sacrifice and dignity of enslaved people and their descendants who built this country. She also made a splash with her natural hair, which she wore braided, styled with a headband, and adorned with gold crimps. Gorman spoke both verbally and visually with pride and power. On Twitter, she emphasized the intention behind the hairdo: “I highly suggest a headband crown for anyone wanting to stand taller, straighter, & prouder.” 

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