Ida B. Wells was born in Mississippi and lived almost half of her life in Illinois. But along the way she spent time in Memphis, and it was there that the course of her life changed.
Today, many people regard Wells — a journalist, activist, teacher, organizer and plaintiff — as the grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement. We’ll tell you her story and let you decide for yourself.
Ida B. Wells was an unlikely candidate for fame. She was a slave when she was born in 1862, although it should be pointed out that her father James Wells — also a slave — was a skilled carpenter. He was the son of his owner and a slave (so Ida B. Wells’ grandfather was white). James Wells actually built the home in which Ida was born (and which still stands in Holly Springs, Mississippi).
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Ida B. Wells became one of tens of thousands of former slaves who received an education because of the Freedmen’s Bureau. She attended Shaw University (now Rust College) near her home in Mississippi.
But in 1878, the yellow fever epidemic laid waste to Holly Springs. Sixteen-year-old Ida Wells lost both her parents and one of her siblings in the epidemic.
Members of the Freemasons, a group to which Ida’s father belonged, tried to split up the six remaining Wells children to live with various friends and family. Young Ida was completely opposed to this idea, telling the Freemasons that they “weren’t going to put the children anywhere.” She then dropped out of school and found a job as a teacher. With the help of her grandmother she managed to keep the family together for about two years.
Around 1880, Ida and her sisters moved to Memphis, where she got a teaching job. During the summers, Wells attended classes at Fisk University in Nashville.
On September 15, 1883, Ida Wells was riding the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad from Memphis to the nearby community of Woodstock and chose to sit in the rear coach. This coach was, by railroad custom, reserved for white, non-smoking passengers. The railroad porter told her to move to the front coach. She refused, and she was literally dragged from the train.
When Wells got back to Memphis, she hired a lawyer and sued the railroad for damages.
By the time the case came to trial (on November 19, 1884), Ida Wells had been involved in another, very similar, incident on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, and the judge appears to have combined the two incidents into a single case. The trial was not a long one but was very interesting; the court heard testimony from several passengers, from the porter and from Ida herself. (The original transcript of this trial can be found at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.)
On Christmas Eve, 1884, Circuit Court Judge Pierce ruled in favor of Wells and awarded her $500 in damages. However, the railroad appealed the case and, three years later, won that appeal before the Tennessee Supreme Court (throwing out Judge Pierce’s decision and ruling against Wells). The court stated in its opinion (which you can find at any law library in Tennessee): “We know of no rule that requires railroad companies to yield to the disposition of passengers to arbitrarily determine as to the coach in which they take passage.”
All this time Wells was working as a teacher and writing for newspapers on the side. She earned very little money from her writing, but in 1891 she became a co-owner of a newspaper called the Memphis Free Speech.
In 1892, Wells wrote in detail about a horrible lynching that had taken place in Memphis in which a mob dragged three black men — co-owners of a grocery store — from jail and murdered them. This experience led her to investigate other lynchings. And, as a result of her articles, some white citizens of Memphis burned the Free Speech office; Wells was forced to stay away from Memphis under threat of violence. She, like thousands of other African Americans of her era, left the South and moved north — first to New York and later Chicago.
For the next several years Ida Wells became one of America’s most prolific writers and speakers about the lynchings that were happening with some regularity in the South. She wrote hundreds of articles and essays. One of the most important was a pamphlet called, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” Here is an excerpt from it:
“The mob spirit has increased with alarming frequency and violence. Over a thousand black men, women and children have been thus sacrificed the past ten years. Masks have long been thrown aside and the lynchings of the present day take place in broad daylight. The sheriffs, police and state officials stand by and see the work well done.”
Wells spoke all over the North and on two occasions conducted speaking tours of England. In the process she had many admirers but, in an era where her candor was unique, many critics as well. In 1899, for instance, she was not invited to speak at the conference of the National Association of Colored Women, apparently because whites who gave to the organization said they would no longer financially support it if the organization embraced Wells. A few years later, she was one of the more prominent black leaders who opposed Booker T. Washington’s strategy of accommodation with white oppression.
Along the way, Ida B. Wells married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a Chicago attorney who shared her convictions. From that point forward she was known by the hyphenated name Ida B. Wells-Barnett (very unusual in an era when women almost universally took their husband’s last names). In addition to being an active writer and speaker for her entire life, she managed to also have and raise four children.
In 1931, while working on her autobiography, Ida B. Wells-Barnett died.
Today, Ida B. Wells’ story is a required part of the Tennessee history curriculum in the fifth and eleventh grades. Yet there is some irony in this. After all, here is a person who lived in Tennessee for a short time and who probably would have been murdered had she returned.
Also, she wasn’t really acknowledged in her time the way civil rights leaders of the late 20th century were honored. She was ahead of her time in many ways. But today Ida B. Wells has far more admirers than critics.
Today there are dozens of books about Ida B. Wells. Two that we recommend in particular are Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells and Ida: In Her Own Words (edited by Michelle Duster), which contains her pamphlet on lynching.
In 1940, a public housing project in Chicago was named for Ida B. Wells. That public housing project was recently torn down, which is why her descendants are trying to create a new monument to honor her.
One other thing about the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Ida B. Wells: they descend on Holly Springs, Mississippi, every July 16 to honor their famous ancestor, visit her birthplace and see other local sites.