Ida B. Wells

     Ida Bell Wells was born in 1862, a half-year before President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the United States. Ida’s parents were slaves in Holly Springs, Miss.
After emancipation, Ida’s father and mother established an independent household, separate from the man who had been their master. Ida’s father was a carpenter with his own business. Ida’s parents firmly believed in educating their seven children; Ida, the eldest, attended Rust College, which also provided elementary schooling and basic studies.
At age 16, Ida Wells’ life changed dramatically. At that time there was a “yellow fever” epidemic in the South and Ida’s parents and one child died, leaving her in charge of her five remaining younger brothers and sisters.
Ida was a good student. To support her family, she dressed herself so she would appear older than her 16 years and took and passed an exam to become a teacher. She taught first in Holly Springs and later near Memphis, Tenn. While riding the train to work, Ida had a run-in with the conductor who said she must move to the car reserved for smoking and for black people. She refused and was dragged from the car. Although she was not physically injured, she felt great anguish from the emotional abuse she suffered. She took her case to court and won a judgment of $500 against the railroad.
At the time, it was unusual for a black person to use the courts to remedy an unfair situation. A headline in the Memphis Daily Appeal read “A Darky Damsel Obtains a Verdict for Damages Against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad — What It Can cost to Put a Colored School Teacher in a Smoking Car — Verdict for $500.” [Note how many words in the headline are terms we do not use today; can you explain why we no longer use them?]
      The railroad appealed the decision, and the judgment was reversed.
Although she lost the legal battle in court, Ida had won an unexpected victory. Asked to write about her experiences for The Living Way, a weekly publication for black churches, she composed a spirited account of the trial and its outcome. Her article was so favorably received that the editor of the weekly asked for more. Out of this defeat, her life’s work began.
Her career as a newspaper writer and editor was launched. She wrote about many of the injustices of the day, including unequal treatment of blacks and whites at the voting booth and in matters relating to education. But it was on the subject of lynching that Ida Wells found a passionate voice. Lynching — or extreme forms of punishment that were administered without benefit of judge or jury — often saw its victims tied to trees and beaten, burned or hung. Ida Wells first wrote about the lynching of three friends in the Memphis newspaper Free Speech and Headlight.
Her work investigating crimes against blacks and in support of the downtrodden often took her to Chicago. She began advocating for women’s rights, while continuing to write about injustices suffered by black citizens. For the Chicago Inter-Ocean, she covered the lynching of a Kentucky man, C.J. Miller, by posing as Miller’s widow. By the time she arrived and began her interviews, the lynchers already knew they had killed the wrong man and that he had never been near the scene of the alleged crime. Her investigations and the stories she wrote indicated that these kinds of mistakes happened all too frequently.
At age 33, Ida married Ferdinand Barnett, a lawyer and owner of the weekly newspaper The Conservator. She became editor, publisher and business manager of the paper and continued writing and speaking out against lynching and about other issues of vital interest to African-Americans.
Ida Wells-Barnett was a founding member of an organization called the National Negro Conference, which in 1910 became the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also was devoted to the cause of universal suffrage (voting rights) for blacks and women.

Adapted, with permission, from “Ida B. Wells-Barnett: Woman of Courage,” by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk (New York: Franklin Watts). Copyright © 1992.