The Remarkable Life of Ida B. Wells

Early Life

Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi in the hot and unforgiving summer of 1862. Thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation, around 6 months later, the Wells family along with the remaining slaves of the Confederate states were freed. However, while the Wells may have been ‘free’ on paper, they were far from equal and at the very beginning of what would be a centuries-long fight for fair treatment, basic human rights, and a chance to succeed. After all, Jim Crow was just beginning to rear its head and MLK wouldn’t march for another 103 years.

Ida’s father, James, used his newfound freedom to help start Shaw University, a school comprised of newly freed slaves. He served on the board of trustees and was heavily involved in the Freedman’s Aid Society. Ida would later go on to attend Shaw University but tragedy would ensure it’d be short-lived. At just 16 years old, both of her parents and one of her siblings succumbed to a yellow fever outbreak leaving her and her five remaining siblings orphaned. Ida knew the responsibility that awaited her and she knew it wouldn’t be easy. Nevertheless, she picked up the reigns and convinced a nearby school that she was 18 so that she could get work as a teacher to provide for what was left of her family.

A Fateful Train Ticket

A handful of years later, she and her sisters relocated to Memphis to be closer to their aunt after her brothers managed to find work as a carpenter apprentice. Things were pretty good save for the rampant day to day racism both subtle and bold. By 1884, she’d been writing about race issues in the South for a number of black publications. She used the pen name “Iola” and became locally known for her work as a journalist for civil injustices.

Then she bought a train ticket that would change her life forever. Her first-class ticket was meant to take her from Memphis to Nashville in a cushy Victorian parlor car complete with a mahogany bar, cabin service, and gorgeous views of the countryside. But instead, she was asked to move to the economy cabin designated for African Americans. Her response was an outright refusal on principle. She was forcibly removed from the train and in the process fastened her teeth on the back of one of the men’s hands who was carrying her out of the car.

The People’s Grocery Lynching

By the time 1887 rolled around, she was 25 and co-owner and editor of the Free Speech and Headlight where she spent her days working toward racial equality in Tennessee and beyond. A few years later, in a neighborhood outside Memphis known as the Curve, 3 black grocers were attacked by a mob of white men. Their names were Will Stewart, Tommie Moss, and Calvin McDowell. Local rumors the black businesses were becoming competition for white businesses (pesky capitalism eh?) sent a large group of white men into the grocery store which they raided, beat the owners, and ensured Will, Tommie and Calvin were jailed. Once in the local jail for defending themselves and their business, they were dragged out by the same angry white men from earlier and taken to Chesapeake and Ohio rail yards. They fought for their lives before all three of them were shot point-blank. Tommie Moss was the last to go, when asked if he had any final words, he said “Tell my people to go west. There is no justice for them here.” He was shot and put under a pile of brush with Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart.

Will, Tommie, and Calvin were just three of thousands of African Americans who’d be lynched for any number of things. Owning businesses, building churches, trying to lead a fulfilling life – ultimately, existing. This was a major turning point for Ida and set her on the path to becoming one of the most influential and wave-making journalists of the time.

Like in her younger years when she lost her parents, she had a choice. A choice to stand up or remain the same. She could continue writing for Free Speech and Headlight to highlight the atrocities of racism in her community, or she could do something even bigger. Bigger it was.

A Pistol, A Notepad, And Nerve

She publically denounced the murders, armed herself with a pistol, and spent the next months traveling around the South. Personally researching over 700 lynchings that’d taken place in the previous decade she made it her life’s work to bring an end to it. She visited places where people had once been hanged, beaten, mutilated, and tortured to death. She sat in silence at the haunted railyards, old oak trees, town squares, backwoods, and even churchyards where evil, hate, and venom swirled in the air. In some cities, they were more discreet and had the sense to do the deed in the woods – in others, they were bold enough to go to the city center and provide a free for all spectacle for the town.

A 1930’s editorial in the Raleigh News and Observer describes it like this:

“Whole families came together, mothers and fathers, bringing even their youngest children. It was the show of the countryside – a very popular show,” … “Men joked loudly at the sight of the bleeding body … girls giggled as the flies fed on the blood that dripped from the Negro’s nose.”

It was because of this blatant acceptance and even celebration of lynching that most had sense enough to stay away. To keep quiet and lay low. But it was for this very reason that Ida marched right into these towns demanding answers. She took a long hard look at nauseating photos, took sworn statements, hired private investigators, asked difficult questions. She was the ultimate investigative journalist. Despite the countless death threats and real worry that she herself would wind up like those hopeless souls in the photos, she pressed on. Would she be a trophy one day? Would she herself become a public show of gore and violence wound up in a shallow grave marked ‘negro’? The answer was probably – nonetheless, she continued and in 1892 published her first of many books: Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

It didn’t take long for her newspaper office to be destroyed by an angry mob looking to chase her out of Memphis for good. Much to the raging white surprise, she was unphased and carried on – what’s a charred printing press and a few noose threats to a woman who’s seen what she had? After all, this is the same Ida B. Wells who famously said “One had better die fighting injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

Soldiering on, she continued shedding a light on what was going on not just in small rural areas but across the nation. She risked her life daily to pull back the curtain on the deepest vilest acts of violence that took place during a lynching such as burning, mutilation, drowning, and more. She toured the US and UK as a public speaker and became a champion of civil rights and fair treatment of African Americans. Her work eventually led her to Chicago where she met Ferdinand Barnett, a lawyer, journalist, and avid supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. Not one for settling, she went on to found Chicago’s first black kindergarten, first black suffrage organization, and first black women’s club. Still not enough for Ida, she even ran for Illinois State Senate and while she didn’t win, she set the scene for more African Americans to find their place on a ballot. She remained a justice pioneer and African American crusader until her last breath in 1931.

All in all Miss Ida B. Wells was a trailblazer and one of the boldest and bravest activists in African American history. She was a fighter with a fire in her belly for justice and a better life in America. Before Rosa parks, before Claudette Colvin, there was Ida B. Wells and her train ticket. In many ways, she was a visionary and the first of her kind. She knew that beatings, lynchings, burned businesses and skewed right shouldn’t be the price of admission for being black. She knew that the only way to extinguish the ever hurling flames of black men in the south was to do it herself. She was a defiant woman who colored outside the lines and paved the way for the likes of Du Bois, Parks, Dr. King, and many more. We can only hope that the Ida B. Wells’ of the world continue to fight, to persist, to look injustice in the eye and say ‘no more.’

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” -Ida B. Wells