Ira James Kohath Wells (1898–1997)
A pioneer in education and journalism, Ira James Kohath Wells was a gifted scholar, businessman, and humanitarian with humble rural beginnings.
Ira J. K. Wells was born in Tamo (Jefferson County) on July 1, 1898, to William James Wells and Emma Brown Wells. When he was young, half of his leg was amputated after he injured it trying to hop on to a moving freight train. For the rest of his life, he had a wooden prosthetic leg. He finished his secondary education at Branch Normal College in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County)—now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB)—and then went on to earn a degree in business from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1923. Even as a student, he showed signs of his social consciousness, as the school’s 1923 yearbook stated that he was a member of the Colored Student Movement.
He earned an MA from the University of Pittsburgh in 1944. He later received two honorary doctorate degrees—in pedagogy from Lincoln University and in law from Allen University.
Wells moved to West Virginia and taught in the segregated school system there. State officials tapped Wells to become the first State Supervisor of Negro Education, a position that was also the first of its kind in the country. In this position from 1933 to 1952, Wells advocated for improved educational conditions for West Virginia’s black youth.
Wells had a passion for journalism, which had ignited after his first job following college working for the Pittsburgh Courier. This led to his founding Color Magazine in 1944. The nation’s first African-American pictorial magazine, it had 100,000 subscribers at its peak and competed directly with John H. Johnson’s Ebony magazine, which started a year later. However, because Wells would not take on additional partners to expand financial resources, he could not overtake the competition and was forced to close the magazine by the mid-1950s.
Wells also had a keen interest in linking the struggles of African people to those of African Americans. He traveled worldwide, including through much of Africa, seeking to foster relationships between African leaders and members of the African-American community. He published in his magazine extensively about people of the African Diaspora and also started an organization called the Friends of Africa and America to foster closer ties. He even attempted in 1955 to produce a documentary, titled The New World on the March, highlighting the progress of people of color throughout the world, but he was not successful. In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a memo to U.S. Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles recommending that Wells be appointed as ambassador to Africa.
During the early 1970s, Wells initiated the Black Studies program at Cheyney State College in Pennsylvania. He was given in 1985 the Distinguished West Virginian Award during the West Virginia Black Cultural Festival.
On December 26, 1997, Wells died in Germantown, Pennsylvania. His wife, Edna Clouden Wells, preceded him in death. The couple had two children, Anita Edna and Ira Jr.
For additional information:
Obituary of Ira J. K. Wells. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 25, 1998.
Wallace, Andy. “Ira J. K. Wells, Sr., 99, an Educator and Publisher.” Philly.com. January 1, 1998. http://articles.philly.com/1998-01-01/news/25749736_1_freight-train-dreams-whites (accessed September 29, 2021).
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