Ida B. Wells led a full life in her 68 years a life filled with more than enough accomplishments for several people. Her life is all the more remarkable when one considers the obstacles she faced and overcame. Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, her parents perished in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. At the age of 16, Wells took a job as a teacher in rural Mississippi to support her brothers and sisters. She taught there for two years while continuing her education at nearby Shaw University (now Rust College.) She then moved to Memphis, Tennessee with several of her siblings to take a teaching job there.
It was in Memphis that she started her journalistic career and activism. She wrote for and co-owned The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper. She wrote of the unequal and inferior conditions in the Black schools as well as the indignities of the Jim Crow system. In 1884, a conductor on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwest Railroad told her to move from the ladies’ coach to the Colored car. She refused. The conductor attempted to physically remove her. She braced herself in the seat and bit his hand. He returned with two other men and physically removed her from the train. Over ten years before the Plessey v. Ferguson case was to enshrine Jim Crow for a generation, Ida Wells sued the railroad. She won her case, but the railroad appealed and the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the verdict. Her writings on the unfairness of the educational system to Black children led to her dismissal as a schoolteacher in Memphis.
Ida Wells is perhaps best known for her unwavering opposition to lynching. The brutal lynching of three Black men in Memphis who were guilty of nothing more than operating a grocery store that competed with a White owned business gave focus to her writing. They had successfully defended themselves from an attack by the store owner and several of his friends. In the fight, two Whites were wounded. The three owners of the grocery store were arrested. Later that night, a mob broke into the jail, took them away and killed them.
The incident inspired Wells to write Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases as well as The Red Record, in which she investigated some of the lynchings that were taking place throughout the South in the post-Reconstruction era as Jim Crow enforced a second class status upon the African-American population.
Ida B. Wells was more than a writer, she was a woman of courage and character. Unjustly ordered to leave her seat and move to the train’s “Colored car” she refused, was assaulted and thrown off the train, only to have her victorious lawsuit thrown out by her state’s Supreme Court. Her writings on the condition of the segregated schools in her area cost her her job. After an editorial in which she dared to question the claim that lynching was the result of assaults upon White women, her newspaper in Memphis was burned to the ground and a price put on her head. She did not stop. She moved to Chicago and continued to write. She would not give into threats.
In addition to her writings on the evils of lynching and segregation, she was also a tireless proponent of Women’s Rights, speaking throughout the country and abroad on the subject.. Wells was also one of the founding members of the NAACP. Throughout her life, she fought injustice, often facing physical danger in doing so. She simply refused to abide the limits placed on her race and sex by the society of her time. The United States of America is a better place for this brave and principled woman having had her as a citizen. As we look back upon Ida B. Wells’ place in our history, may we continue to strive to be the kind of nation that gives opportunity to all of its people.