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People & Events: Ida Wells (1862-1931)

Ida B. Wells portrait photographIda Wells was born in 1862 in Mississippi, at the height of the Civil War. The daughter of slaves, she was orphaned at the age of fourteen and took over the care of five younger brothers and sisters. She had learned to read in a missionary school run by abolitionists, and found a job as a teacher in Memphis, writing for an African American magazine on the side.

In 1884, before the doctrine of separate but equal segregation was legally upheld in the courts, she was asked to give up her seat on a train. In her autobiography she writes, "I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies' car, I proposed to stay... [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn't try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out."

Immediately upon her return to Memphis, Wells hired a lawyer to sue the rail company. She won her case in the lower courts, but the Supreme Court of Tennessee overturned that decision. From that moment on the train, however, the entrenched forces of racism and segregation had made a powerful enemy of Ida B. Wells.

Wells was asked to retell her story in African American and Christian newspapers, and her career in journalism took off. In 1891, she became editor of Memphis' black paper. Three friends of Wells were lynched for opening a grocery store that dared to compete with a white store, and Wells organized a boycott of white businesses in protest. Wells then wrote an editorial suggesting that sexual relations between black men and white women could exist outside of rape, the crime by which most lynchings were justified. Her office was destroyed and her life threatened, forcing her to move north, to New York.

Frederick Douglass An article on lynching she wrote and reprinted widely brought Wells to the attention of Frederick Douglass, one of the most respected black leaders of the century. She moved out to Chicago to work with Douglass. In 1893, she shared Douglass's dismay that among all the crowded exhibits touting American progress at the World's Columbian Exposition, the accomplishments of over 8 million African Americans were almost completely overlooked. Wells determined to write a pamphlet denouncing the situation but the black middle class would not contribute to the printing costs. Wells turned instead to black women's church organizations, who helped fund 20,000 copies of her impassioned work, "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition." Wells passed them out to visitors at the fair's Haitian pavilion.

Man In Top Hat (Colored American Day) Then, when Douglass decided to take part in a special "Colored People's Day" at the fair, Wells refused to participate in a gesture she considered a mocking stunt. At the fair, Douglass made a speech against discrimination: "Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have... honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution." Wells immediately apologized to Douglass; his speech had publicized the struggles of the black community more than anything else at the fair.

In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand Barnett, the founder of Chicago's first African American newspaper, The Conservator. She continued to write and organize, and participated in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her opinions were too radical for that organization, however, and her influence there was limited. In 1930, she ran for the state legislature, one of the first black women ever to run for public office.

Ida B. Wells died in 1931.

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