Ira J.K. Wells owned Color Magazine, the nation's first African-American magazine, which boasted 100,000 subscribers and competed with Ebony magazine in its prime.
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Ira James Kohath Wells was born in Tamo, Arkansas, on July 1, 1898, to William James Wells and Emma Brown Wells. In his youth, half of his leg was amputated after he tried to hop onto a moving freight car. Wells wore a wooden prosthetic leg for the rest of his life. He finished high school at Branch Normal College in Pine Bluff (now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff).
In 1923, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in business from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. While at Lincoln University, he was a socially conscious leader and organizer. He was a founding member of the Colored Student Movement. He was also a member of the Student Anti-Lynching delegation that spoke before President Warren Harding. After graduating, Wells worked for the Pittsburgh Courier.
Wells moved to West Virginia, where he taught in the segregated school system. From 1933 to 1952, Wells served as the first State Supervisor of Negro Education. In this position, he helped African Americans to have greater control of their schools, advocating for improved educational conditions for all of West Virginia’s Black youth.
In 1944, he earned an MA from the University of Pittsburgh. He later received two honorary doctorate degrees, one in pedagogy from Lincoln University and the other in law from Allen University. In 1944, Wells also followed his passion for journalism when he founded Color Magazine. Color Magazine was the nation’s first African-American pictorial magazine. At its peak, it competed with Ebony magazine, garnering more than 100,000 subscribers. Unfortunately, in the mid-1950s, Wells was forced to close the magazine as he refused to take on additional partners to expand the magazine's financial resources.
Wells was a world traveler, traversing much of Africa to foster relationships between African and African-American leaders. Interested in linking the struggles of African people to those of African Americans, he started an organization called the Friends of Africa and America. He also published numerous articles about the African diaspora in Color Magazine.
In 1955, he unsuccessfully attempted to produce The New World on the March, a documentary highlighting the progress and achievements of people of color across the world. In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. contacted Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles to recommend Wells be appointed ambassador to Africa.
During the early 1970s, Wells began the Black Studies program at Cheyney State College in Pennsylvania. In 1985, during the West Virginia Black Cultural Festival, he received the Distinguished West Virginian Award, a rare award given to a handful of people who go above and beyond for the state.
On December 26, 1997, Wells died in Germantown, Pennsylvania. He was preceded in death by his wife, Edna Clouden Wells. The couple shared two children, Anita Edna Wells and Ira Wells Jr.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard