In the 1890s, Ida B. Wells galvanized the early civil rights movement through her investigative journalism and intersectional feminism — and she was just getting started.
About 70 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, a Black woman named Ida B. Wells refused to leave her seat in the whites-only section of a Nashville-bound train.
But after she was thrown off, Wells sued the railroad company — and won, kicking off an historic career in social activism that lasted the rest of her life. She went on to become an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage after leading an anti-lynching crusade across the South.
While fighting against lynching, Wells armed herself with a pistol and toured the American South to investigate and report on the epidemic of violence being committed against Black Americans. In an effort to bring justice to those who’d suffered and awareness to the willfully ignorant, Ida B. Wells braved Jim Crow America with a pen and paper and her unwavering voice — and that was just the beginning of her inspiring career.
How Ida B. Wells Battled Adversity Right From The Start
As is the case today, Ida B. Wells came of age in a world where changes in laws did not signal immediate changes in how they were enforced, let alone people’s thoughts and behaviors.
Even though she was born on July 16, 1862, just six months before the Emancipation Proclamation freed all of America’s slaves at the federal level, Wells herself was born into slavery. She and her family lived in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where they remained subjected to the prejudice that no piece of legislation could fully quell.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, where they were from, Wells’ parents became very active in advocating for equality, particularly in education. Her father was a founding member of Shaw University (now Rust College), which Wells went on to attend.
As a young woman, Wells approached her education with enthusiasm, but at age 16 tragedy struck and Wells had to abandon her studies when both her parents and a younger brother died of yellow fever. As the eldest of eight children, Wells took on the care of her remaining siblings.
In 1882, Wells and her siblings moved to Memphis to live with an aunt. Resourceful and driven, Wells, around 18 at this time, managed to land a few teaching jobs despite losing a few years of study to care for her family.
However, it didn’t take Ida B. Wells long to get back into academics, and soon she began going back and forth from Memphis to Nashville to attend college. It was on one of these voyages that her path made a historic turn.
She Refused To Give Up Her Seat 70 Years Before Rosa Parks
In the spring of 1884, Wells purchased a first class ticket for her journey back to Nashville. When one of the conductors demanded that she move to the segregated car of the train, she simply refused. The conductor insisted that first class was a whites-only privilege, but Wells refused to leave her seat on principle.
The crew member physically, and forcibly, removed her from the train, but Wells responded in kind. As she later recalled 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 sued the railroad company and actually won a $500 settlement in local court. The defendants appealed, however, and the trial then went to the Tennessee Supreme Court where Wells lost and had to return the settlement — and pay an additional $200 in damages to the railroad.
Outraged, Wells decided to tell the story to local newspapers. Writing under the pseudonym “Iola,” Wells quickly established herself as a journalist on the beat of social justice, and particularly its intersection with education.
This decision came with consequences. When Wells began to vocalize her criticisms of the state of schools for black children in 1891, she lost her teaching post at a segregated school.
Fearless Reporting On Lynching Throughout The South
Continuing to write about racial injustice in an accessible manner, Ida B. Wells became particularly vocal on the subject of lynching. While the practice posed a threat to all African Americans, it hit very close to home for Wells: after attempting to defend his store from a group of white men, one of Wells’ friends was killed by lynching.
Writing soon translated to physical activism, and Wells boldly began to travel throughout the United States to investigate lynching, and kickstarted a robust campaign against the practice.
Her reporting was widely disseminated in brochures, and she also published a book, A Red Record, an extraordinary monograph on lynching throughout the confederate South, in which she urged congress to do something about rampant mob violence.
Wells’ keen observations and analysis are striking in their own right, but are even more-so when considered in a modern context. Much of what Wells perceived and elucidated on in her writing about racial inequality and the social dynamics among races remains relevant today, when people continue to justify violence against people of color through means of law and order.
In her own words:
“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.”
In the book, Wells offers the names, locations, and the justifications for each lynching she encountered in the South. Words like “attempted” and “alleged” appear often as a precursor to the many of the crimes attributed to those who were lynched, an important qualifier to note because these individuals more often than not did not have any kind of proper trial.
Sometimes, white men did not attempt to invoke claims of crime or violence to legitimize their call for lynching: reasons such as “insulting whites” appear in Wells’ account, as does “lynched as a warning,” and perhaps worst of all, “no offense.”
Wells’ Fight For Women’s Suffrage
Wells continued to soldier on in the fight for social justice throughout her life, and this fight would eventually include campaigning for women’s suffrage.
Here, too, Wells faced barriers. Despite her highly-respected work as an advocate and journalist, white feminists leading the historic 1913 March on Washington still relegated Wells and other non-white feminists to either march at the back of their parade, or have a march of their own.
Well consequently founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, which organized women in the city to elect candidates who would best serve the Black community.
As a black woman, this experience signaled to Wells that disrupting racial equality was a necessary precondition for the attainment of true gender equality. If Wells needed any more evidence to support her belief, she got it in her quest for women’s suffrage: For all intents and purposes, white women received the right to vote before black women.
While the 15th Amendment, which was ratified in 1870, prohibited racial discrimination when it came to voting, it wasn’t until 1965 that the Voting Rights Act made the systematic suppression of black voters (through the administration of “literacy tests” or requirement to pay poll taxes, for example) illegal.
It was arguably only then, 40 years after women’s suffrage, that black women could participate in one of the pillars of democracy like their white female peers.
The Historic Legacy Of Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells married a prominent Chicago attorney named Ferdinand in 1895. They had four children together. Their relationship was reportedly one of mutual respect and intellectualism, but according to some, Wells had difficulty balancing her activism and her time with her family. Suffragist Susan B. Anthony once described her as “distracted.”
In the early 1900s, Wells formed a couple of civil rights organizations and was a part-founder in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but left the group in its infancy.
Wells died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931.
Her legacy, both as an advocate for and scholar of social justice, endures today. Her fight to stop violence against people of color, to dismantle racial prejudice, and her analyses on the sociopolitical structures built to keep white men in power, were recognized in 2020 when she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
To honor Ida B. Wells’ legacy, we must not simply take note of these truths, but act. As Wells once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”