Ida B. Wells, who was born into slavery and left orphaned at the age of 16, went on to become a well-known writer, a vocal opponent of lynching, and the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Ida B. Wells, a Black woman, stood her ground in the whites-only section of a Nashville-bound train around 70 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
However, after being knocked off the train, Wells filed a lawsuit against the railroad, won, and began a legendary career in social action that lasted the rest of her life. After leading an anti-lynching crusade across the South, she later evolved into a vocal advocate for women’s suffrage.
Wells traveled the American South equipped with a handgun to investigate and document the epidemic of violence being committed against Black Americans while fighting against lynching. Ida B. Wells battled Jim Crow America with a pen and paper and her unshakable voice in an effort to bring justice to those who had suffered and awareness to the willfully ignorant, and it was just the start of her incredible career.
How Ida B. Wells Overcame Difficulties From the Beginning
Ida B. Wells grew up in a society where changes to the law did not immediately affect how they were applied, let alone how individuals thought or behaved.
She was born a slave on July 16, 1862, Ida Bell Wells, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation freed all of America’s slaves on a federal basis. She and her family were residents of Holly Springs, Mississippi, where racism persisted .
The parents of Wells got quite involved in the fight for equality, notably in the field of education, possibly in spite of or perhaps because of where they came from. Wells went on to attend Shaw University (now Rust College), which her father was a founding member of.
Wells was an enthusiastic student when she was younger, but at age 16, tragedy struck, forcing her to give up her studies when both of her parents and a younger brother passed away from yellow fever. Wells, the eighth child, took on the responsibility of looking after her younger siblings.
Wells and her siblings relocated to Memphis in 1882 to stay with an aunt. Despite skipping a few years of school to care for her family, Wells, who was around 18 at the time, managed to secure a few teaching positions.
Ida B. Wells quickly returned to her studies though, and soon she was commuting back and forth from Memphis to Nashville to attend college. Her journey took a historic turn while she was on one of these expeditions.
Seventy Years Before Rosa Parks, She Refused To Give Up Her Seat
Ida Wells bought a first-class ticket to return to Nashville in the spring of 1884. She flatly refused to go to the train’s segregated car when one of the conductors insisted she do so. Wells remained seated in first class despite the conductor’s insistence that it was a privilege reserved for white people alone.
Wells retaliated in kind after the crew member violently removed her from the train. In her autobiography, she later recalled:
“I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay… [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”
Wells filed a lawsuit against the train corporation, and the judge awarded him a $500 payment. However, the defendants filed an appeal, which caused the case to be heard by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wells lost there and was forced to repay the settlement as well as pay the railroad an extra $200 in damages.
Outraged, Wells made the decision to share the incident with the local media. Wells rapidly made a name for herself as a journalist covering social justice, particularly its nexus with education, while writing under the pen name “Iola.”
There were repercussions from this choice. Wells lost her job as a teacher at a segregated school when she started speaking out against the way black students were being educated in 1891.
Information On Lynching In The South
Ida B. Wells continued to write about racial injustice in an approachable way, and she became particularly outspoken about lynching. All African Americans were at risk from the practice, but Wells was particularly affected because one of his friends was lynched after trying to defend his store from a group of white men.
Writing eventually evolved into practical activity, and Wells bravely started traveling across the country to study lynching and launch a successful campaign against the crime.
She also released a book, A Red Record, an astonishing monograph on lynching in the Confederate South, in which she asked congress to take action against rampant mob violence. Her reporting was extensively circulated through pamphlets.
Wells’ astute observations and analyses are startling on their own, but become even more so when put in the context of today. Much of what Wells observed and explained about racial inequity and racial social dynamics in her writing is still relevant today, as people continue to use law and order justifications for violence against people of color.
As she put it:
“The first excuse given to the civilized world for the murder of unoffending Negroes was the necessity of the white man to repress and stamp out alleged ‘race riots.’ For years immediately succeeding the war, there was an appalling slaughter of colored people, and the wires usually conveyed to northern people and the world the intelligence, first, that an insurrection was being planned by Negroes, which, a few hours later, would prove to have been vigorously resisted by white men, and controlled with a resulting loss of several killed and wounded. It was always a remarkable feature in these insurrections and riots that only Negroes were killed during the rioting, and that all the white men escaped unharmed.”
Ida Wells provides the names, places, and explanations for each lynching she came across in the South in her book. Words like “attempted” and “alleged” frequently precede the many offenses that are attributed to those who were lynched; this is significant because these people were frequently never given a fair trial.
In some cases, white males did not try to use accusations of crime or violence to support their desire for lynching: Wells’ report included justifications like “insulting whites,” “lynched as a warning,” and, perhaps worst of all, “no offense.”
The Battle for Women’s Voting Rights
Throughout her life, Ida B. Wells persisted in the pursuit of social justice, which finally led to her advocating for women’s suffrage.
There were obstacles for Wells as well. Wells and other non-white feminists were forced to march either behind the white feminists spearheading the historic 1913 March on Washington or on their own, despite their well-respected work as activists and journalists.
Well established the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago as a result, organizing local women to vote for politicians who would best represent the Black community.
This event made it clear to Wells, a black woman, that upending racial equality was a crucial prerequisite for achieving true gender equality. For all intents and purposes, white women were granted the right to vote before black women, providing Wells with whatever additional proof she needed to back up her belief.
While the 15th Amendment, which was ratified in 1870, outlawed racial discrimination in voting, the systematic suppression of black voters (via the use of “literacy tests” or the imposition of poll taxes, for example) wasn’t rendered unlawful until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Possibly only then, 40 years after women were granted the right to vote, were black women able to take part in one of the foundations of democracy like their white female counterparts.
Ida B. Wells’s Historical Legacy
In 1895, Ida B. Wells wed Ferdinand Barnett, a well-known Chicago lawyer. Together, they had four children. They apparently enjoyed a respectful and intellectually stimulating relationship, although some claim that Wells struggled to strike a balance between her advocacy and her time with her family. Susan B. Anthony, a suffragist, once called her “distracted.”
Wells founded a few civil rights organizations in the early 1900s and was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but she left the organization when it was still young.
On March 25, 1931, Ida B. Wells-Barnett passed away in Chicago, Illinois, from kidney disease.
Her influence as a proponent of social justice and a scholar of the subject is still felt today. In 2020, she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in recognition of her work to end violence against people of color, to end racial discrimination, and to analyze the sociopolitical institutions created to maintain the dominance of white men.
- Mitchell, Judylynn (November 11, 1979). “Daughter of Slave Fights for Racial Justice”. The Daily Times. Vol. 56, no. 343. Salisbury, Maryland. p. D13. Retrieved October 26, 2020 – via
- Andy Warhol Museum (September 22, 2001 – February 21, 2002), The Without Sanctuary Project, curated by James Allen; co-directed by Jessica Arcand and Margery King
- Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). “Ida B. Wells-Barnett”. 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. pp. 110, 309–311. ISBN 1-57392-963-8. LCCN 2002018993. OCLC 1018143510. Article: 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia