By: Special Staff Report
Journalist, Abolitionist, Suffragist, feminist, and founding member of the NAACP- and first black to refuse to give up her seat
Ida Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1861 to parents previously enslaved. Her parents, active leaders of the Republican Party were responsible for starting the Freedman’s Aid Society and Shaw University. Shaw University still lives on today as Rust College. Her father served on the board of trustees and is where she began her early education.
Following a tragic outbreak of Yellow Fever, she lost both of her parents and her youngest sibling. As a result, at the age of 16, she dropped out of school to care for her siblings. Even at a young age, she was already resourceful and convinced a nearby school that she was 18 landing her first teaching position.
One of her first recorded protests of Jim Crow and other democrat-led racial inequality was her refusal to give up her seat on the train. Despite the 1875 Republican Civil Rights Acts that banned racial discrimination, the conduct of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company asked her to give up her seat on the train to a white man. He ordered her to the “Jim Crow” or smoking car. Ida Wells refused and was forcefully dragged. She wrote in her autobiography:
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 was forcefully removed from the train and the other passengers–all whites–applauded. When Wells returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an attorney to sue the railroad. She won her case in the local circuit courts, but the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and it reversed the lower court’s ruling. This was the first of many struggles Wells engaged, and from that moment forward, she worked tirelessly and fearlessly to overturn injustices against women and people of color.
She eventually sued to the railroad and won her case only to have it overthrown by a higher court.
The lawsuit however garnered much attention from newspapers and that sparked her career as a journalist. She became a partner in The Free Speech and Headlight. The paper was owned by, Rev. R. Nightngale, pastor of Beale Street Baptist Church.
She wrote articles to encourage Negros to boycott white businesses promoting the creation of Peoples Grocery Company. This was owned by Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart. The anger from the competing business owned by whites led to lynching of each of these owners.
With her outrage, she penned even more information to shine a light on lynching and racial injustice happening commonly in the south. Her writings led to numerous Negros moving from the south, to escape racial injustices. She herself moved to Chicago and continued her crusade of racial justice for all citizens.
She went on to be an award winning journalist and crusader for racial justice and the suffrage movement. She was credited with successfully blocking the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago. She further developed African-American and suffrage reform organizations. She also led the organization of the famous 1913 Suffrage March in Washington DC.
In 1906, along with William E.B. Dubois, to further the Niagra Movement and founded the NAACP in 1909. As a founding member of the organization, she was one of the few black leaders to oppose Booker T. Washington. Some viewed his actions as radical. Although a founder of the organization, she was punished by being removed as a leader of the organization.
By 1930, she was fed up with the power hungry seeking personal advancement and the party’s nominees to the Illinois State Legislature. She chose to run herself. She is credited as being the first Black women to run for public office and did so as a Republican.
Ida Wells spent her entire life fighting for justice and equality for all people and did so with a pend and her actions. She began as a voice to expose Southern Democrat’s lynching. This became a national stage for her and she took on the fight for suffrage. Women and blacks should be proud of the work she did. She spent her life as a crusader for righting all wrongs and holding the guilty accountable. She inspired a generation to continue the fight and the organization she helped found, NAACP, is still vital in the United States today.
Ida B. Wells: Pictured with her family and her four children. Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda
Photo: Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library