Teacher, Journalist, Activist
Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862, shortly before the end of the American Civil War. Her parents, Elizabeth Warrenton, a cook, and James Wells, a carpenter, were enslaved persons on the Holly Springs property of Spires Bolling. After the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Mississippi’s eventual surrender two years later, the Wells family immediately began exercising some of their newfound freedoms, such as legalizing their marriage, securing a good education for their children, and becoming politically active in Reconstruction Era politics. James Wells continued his training in the building trade, becoming a skilled and successful craftsman.
After the death of her parents and youngest brother from a yellow fever outbreak in 1878, Ida moved to Memphis, TN and secured a teaching post at the age of sixteen to support herself and her siblings. As a young school teacher, Wells faced difficulties with some of her students, but her instinct was to not back down. Her need for truth and justice was already strong by the age of twenty-three.
During one of her typical train rides from work one evening, the conductor asked her to move to a different car despite having purchased a ticket for the ladies car in which she was sitting. Wells refused, and the conductor
tried to drag me out of the seat, but I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand which had grasped my arm. He then went forward and got the baggage man to help him, since he cd [sic] not dislodge one by himself. They brought a third man and they succeeded in dragging me out. They were encouraged to do this by the attitude of the white ladies and gentlemen in the car, some of whom even stood on the seats to applaud the conductor.
Wells filed a lawsuit against the railroad company in 1884. She won damages in her case at the local level, but the award was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the success of this case brought an unprecedented amount of attention as it was the first case in which an African American plaintiff had appealed to state court following the repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Devastated and angered by the loss, Wells decided to pursue a career in journalism as a way to speak out against racial injustice.
More information regarding the verdict for Wells’ case against the railroad company can be found in an article published by the Memphis Appeal-Avalanche on December 25, 1884 titled “A Darky Damsel Obtains a Verdict for Damages Against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad.”