Ida B Wells was born into slavery on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her father, James, was a carpenter and her mother, Elizabeth, was a famous cook. Both parents were literate and taught Ida how to read at a young age. She was surrounded by political activists and grew up with a sense of hope about the possibilities of former slaves within American society. Both parents died, along with an infant brother, during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic when Ida was 16 years old. At that young age, she assumed the responsibility of rearing her five younger brothers and sisters.
Some eighty years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, twenty-two-year-old Wells refused to move out of the train seat that she had paid for.
Wells attended Rust College and then became a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. On 4 May 1884, Wells was involved in an altercation with a white conductor while riding the railroad. She had purchased a first-class ticket and was seated in the ladies car when the conductor ordered her to sit in the black section, which did not offer first-class accommodations. She refused and when the conductor tried to remove her, she fastened her teeth on the back of his hand.
Wells was ejected from the train, and she sued. Backed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875, she filed and won a lawsuit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1887. She was awarded $500 damage, but the Tennessee Supreme Court shortly reversed the victory. Frustrated, she began writing political columns in church newspapers. Having secured a job in the Memphis public schools, she saved her money and became part owner of a small newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight in Memphis.
In 1891 she was dismissed from the Memphis school system for a strong article she wrote pointing out unequal funding of the black schools by the board of education.
For the rest of her life, she would be an outspoken and courageous voice for civil rights, fighting educational inequities, lynching, and segregation, and supporting economic boycotts and women’s rights.
Publications by Ida B Wells