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 inf