In May of 1884, a young woman named Ida was traveling home to Memphis from Nashville on a first-class train ticket. She was on break from Fisk University, where she was continuing her studies after taking a break to be a teacher. About halfway through her trip, Ida was approached by a porter who asked her to move to the back of the train, where African American passengers were required to ride. Ida, who had paid for her ticket to sit in first class, refused. When the porter returned with another man to threaten her into action, she still refused. When the two men attempted to physically remove her from the train, she fought back and bit one of them on the hand. Ida was eventually forced off the train. Rather than simply accepting what had happened to her, Ida let the incident fuel a fight in her that would someday take her to the White House and beyond.
Ida Bell Wells was born the oldest child of slaves on July 16, 1882 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Six months after her birth the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, but life for African Americans in the South was still rife with racism and discrimination. Ida’s parents were active in the Republican Party during the years of Reconstruction, and her father James helped found Shaw College, a school for freed slaves. Ida would eventually receive her early schooling there, but she was forced to abandon her studies in 1879, when both of her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic. Sixteen-year-old Ida suddenly found herself the sole caregiver of her five siblings. To keep her family together, Ida convinced a country school administrator that she was 18 in order to start teaching school. Her resourcefulness got her family through until they were able to stay with an aunt in Memphis, where Ida was able to continue going to school at Fisk University, a historically black college. At Fisk, Ida quickly gained a reputation as an outspoken supporter for women’s rights.
It was on one of her trips back and forth to school that Ida found herself forced off the train. Outraged, she hired a black lawyer in Memphis and sued the railroad company for $500. She won her case, but it was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. In response, Ida began writing. She published several articles in black-owned newspapers detailing the racial discrimination she and other African Americans faced in the South. She was a pioneer for black female journalists during a time when outspoken women, particularly outspoken black women, were not encouraged.
In 1889, Ida was devastated by the death of her friend, Thomas Moss, in Memphis. Moss owned a successful grocery store, and after an altercation with a mob Moss and two other black men were lynched. In response, Ida began an anti-lynching campaign. She conducted research into the causes of lynching cases and the ways they were justified. Ida published her findings in a pamphlet entitled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases.” Her writing incensed many members of the white community in Memphis; soon after her articles began appearing in the anti-segregation publication Free Speech and Headlight, she received death threats and the newspaper office was trashed. None of this deterred her. Ida traveled the country and eventually to Europe, giving speeches and talks exposing the horror of lynching practices in the American South. She helped organized protests in Washington D.C, urging President Woodrow Wilson to pass stronger laws to protect for black people in the U.S. She spoke out out against the mistreatment of black people in the justice system, the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South, and discrimination faced by women.
During her long, distinguished career in journalism, Ida wrote about the world as she saw it, without shying away from harsher details. Her legacy inspired generations of activism and investigations into the practice of lynching in the South. As she wrote herself, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them”, and she embodied that practice her entire life.