In 1884 she was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man and ordered her into the ‘smoking or Jim Crow’ car, which was already crowded with other passengers.
Despite the 1875 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination on the basis of race creed or colour, in theatres, hotels, transports and other public accommodations, several railroad companies defied this congressional mandate and racially segregated its passengers.
She refused. The conductor tried to drag her out of her seat but the moment he caught hold of her arm, she bit him on the back of his hand. He went forward and got the baggage man and another man to help and of course they succeeded in dragging Ida Wells out. She was forcefully removed from the train with all the whites applauding. She hired a lawyer to sue the railroad.
From that moment forward, she worked tirelessly and fearlessly to overturn injustices against women and people of colour. Her suit against the railroad company sparked her career as a journalist. Papers wanted to hear about the experiences of the 25-year old school teacher who stood up against white supremacy.
In 1892 three of her friends were lynched. The three men were owners of People’s Grocery Company and their small grocery had taken away customers from competing white businesses.
A group of angry white men thought they would ‘eliminate’ the competition so they attacked the People’s grocery, but the owners fought back, shooting one of the attackers. The owners of People’s grocery were arrested, but a lynch–mob broke into the jail, dragged them away from town, and brutally murdered all three. Again, this atrocity galvanized her mettle.
In 1989 she became co-owner and editor of an anti-segregation newspaper that published articles about racial injustice. She was dismissed from her teaching post by the Memphis Board of Education due to the articles she had written which critiqued the conditions in the coloured schools of the region; Wells devastated but undaunted, then concentrated all of her energies on writing articles for her newspaper the Living Way and the Free Speech and Headlight urging blacks to leave Memphis altogether.
More than 6,000 blacks left Memphis; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. After being threatened with violence, she bought a gun and later wrote: ‘They made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth.’
Born into slavery several months before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.
Her enslaved parents were James and ‘Lizzie’ Wells, both held by Spires Bolling, an architect. Her father was a master carpenter and after the Civil War he worked for the advancement of blacks. He was very interested in politics, attended public speeches and campaigned for local black candidates but never ran for office himself.
While visiting her grandmother, Ida, then 16 years old, received word that her parents and infant brother died during the yellow fever epidemic, leaving her and her five young siblings orphaned.
To keep her younger siblings together as a family, she found work as a teacher in a black elementary school. Wells resented that in the segregated school system, white teachers were paid $80 a month and she was only paid $30. This discrimination made her more interested in the politics of race and improving the education of blacks.
In 1895 Wells married the editor of one of Chicago’s early Black newspapers.
‘I was married in the city of Chicago to Attorney F.L. Barnett, and retired to what I thought was privacy of a home,’ she announced. She and her husband had 4 children.
She did not stay retired long and continued writing and organizing. She was one of two African American women to sign ‘the call’ to form the NAACP in 1909. Although she was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People she was also among the few Black leaders to explicitly oppose Booker T. Washington and his strategies.
As late as 1930, she became disgusted by the nominees of the major parties to the state legislature, so Wells-Barnett ran for the Illinois State legislature, which made her one of the first black women to run for public office in the United States. A year later at 69 years old, Ida Wells-Barnett passed away after a lifetime crusading for justice.
It is heartening to know that there is a legacy of women who fought for the rights of black America when the stakes were incredibly high.
Wells-Barnett was a woman of fire, ideals and purpose with no time for foolishness whether it came from white men, women or otherwise.