Happy Birthday Ida B. Wells!
On July 16th, 1862 activist, Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Wells’ parents were slaves when she was born but were officially freed by the union six months after her birth. But that did not change the discrimination faced by most African-Americans.
Wells was influenced by her parents, who were both involved in various organizations. Her father helped to start the Shaw University, a school that newly freed slaves could attend, and he also served on the board of trustees.
Wells attended Shaw University until the Wells family was hit by misfortune when Ida was just 16. Her mother, father, and one of her siblings died during a yellow fever outbreak. Wells was left with a lot of responsibility. Scrambling to make due Wells convinced a school administrator that she was 18, allowing her to get a job as a teacher there. She worked at the school until 1882 when she moved her sisters to Memphis, Tennessee to stay with an aunt while her brothers did work as carpentry. She continued on with her education at Fisk University of Nashville.
In 1884 Wells had an experience that would forever change her life. One evening Wells bought a first class train ticket from Memphis to Nashville. Upon attempting to board the first class train car the crew refused to let her board, ordering her to move to the car for African-Americans. She refused. This was about 70 years before the infamous moment that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Wells was a trailblazer that many of us do not hear enough about.
The crew had to forcibly move her off of the train during which she bit one of the men that was dragging her away. Wells said of the incident,
The moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand,” she wrote in her autobiography. “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 baggage man and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out
After suing the railroad she won a $500 settlement in court, a decision that would later be overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The train incident pushed Wells to start writing. She wrote about race and politics of the South, using a moniker “lola”. Many of her articles were published in black newspapers and periodicals.
Wells was working as a teacher and a journalist, writing about the condition of blacks only schools in Memphis. Her writing led her to be fired from her teaching job in 1891.
The following year three African-American men opened up a grocery store in Memphis. The store was pulling business from white owned stores in the area. One evening, the men were guarding their store when white men showed up to cause trouble. The store owners shot several of the white men. The African-American store owners were brought to jail and before they could defend themselves, a lynch mob took them from the jail cell and murdered them.
That incident pushed Wells to write more, discussing the brutal lynching and unfair brutality African-Americans were facing. She risked her life to live in the south, gathering information about lynching to put together a report. While living in the south a mob broke in her office, destroying equipment and warning her to leave. She began to lecture abroad about issues of race brutality. Her traveling brought her to Washington D.C. in 1898, leading an anti-lynching campaign to the White House.
That same year Wells married Ferdinand Barnett. Insisting on keeping her name she became, Ida Wells-Barnett. This was radical at the time. The couple would have four kids together. But that did stop Wells from her activism.
Wells was involved with numerous organizations throughout her active life.
Nothing could stop her from speaking her mind once saying, “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
Happy Birthday to you Ida B. Wells!