Although born into slavery in 1862, Ida B. Wells lived most of her life as a free woman. Her parents successfully navigated their new freedom and her father became a skilled carpenter. Unfortunately, both parents died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 and Ida, as the oldest of their eight children, struggled to hold the family together. She moved with her young siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, where she was able to find work as a schoolteacher. Eager to express her ideas about race relations as the South adjusted to the post-Civil War society, she gradually assumed a role as journalist. The African American press was flourishing, and she found an eager audience for her articles. Unlike most of the earlier suffrage leaders, she gained fame through the written word rather than through public speaking.

The years during which Wells was establishing her professional life, were difficult years in Nashville and throughout the South. The transition to a world without slavery was long and painful. The high hopes of abolitionists that former slaves would be integrated into society, were destroyed when white Southerners refused to recognize anyone of African descent as an equal. The reconstruction era was one of the most painful periods in American history and Ida B. Well’s life was shaped by the bitterness of the postwar years.

Ida B. Wells

As a well-educated and respectable teacher, Ida B. Wells expected to be able to move around her community freely on the growing network of trains being developed during the 1880s. Unfortunately, many white Nashville citizens did not want African Americans to travel in the railroad cars with them. Wells’s first major clash with authorities occurred in 1884 when she tried to use her first-class railroad ticket in a ladies’ car along with many white women. The conductor ordered her to leave the car; she refused. He called reinforcements and it took three men to roughly pull and push Wells out of the car and off the train.

Refusing to accept such treatment, Wells sued the railroad. She won her case and was given $500 in compensation, but that judgement was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ruled that the railroad had a right to decide where travelers were allowed to sit. Wells was ordered to pay court costs. From that day on, she was determined to spend her life trying to ensure equal rights for all Americans.

As the former Confederate states fought to keep white men in power, they turned to illegitimate forms of control. Lynching became one of their major weapons to maintain white supremacy. When the owners of an African American grocery store in Memphis were lynched, Wells wrote an editorial in which she urged her people to leave the city. “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” The article outraged many readers and Wells’s newspaper office was burned to the ground in retaliation. Wells soon followed her own advice and left Memphis to move north. She never returned.

In the years that followed, Wells embarked on a major anti-lynching campaign. In 1892, she published a pamphlet called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. This was followed by an expanded examination of lynching in The Red Report, which included pages of statistics documenting the extent of the practice. She soon became a leading voice against lynching. Along with other African American leaders, she campaigned for the passage of a federal anti-lynching law to end the practice.  

Despite her efforts, Wells found little support in her campaign to persuade Americans to pass a federal anti-lynching law. Finally, she decided she needed support from England and other European countries. In 1894 she traveled to England on a speaking tour. Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was also touring England at the time. Because the WCTU was one of the few women’s groups that accepted women of all races, Wells hoped that the two of them could work together to build support for the anti-lynching campaign. Unfortunately, Willard focused her efforts far more on temperance than on stopping lynching and she refused to join enthusiastically in Wells’s campaign. The two had a memorable and well-publicized argument with the result that the WCTU never passed an anti-lynching proposal and Wells’s impact on English liberals was not as successful as she had hoped.

Wells was a fighter, not a politician, and throughout her life she engaged in battles with leaders of the African American community such as Frederick Douglas and especially Booker T. Washington as well as with women’s suffrage leaders. Despite Wells’s importance in both the battle for African American rights and in the fight for women’s right to vote, she was often denied the honor and acknowledgement she deserved.

In 1913, National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) planned a massive march in Washington D.C. to mark the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as President. Suffrage leaders from all over the country were invited to attend. Ida B. Wells went as part of the Illinois delegation. To her shock and dismay, the leaders of the event announced at the last minute that only white women would march in the front of the parade. African Americans were asked to walk together at the end of the entire group. Many agreed, but Ida B. Wells refused. She simply did not move back but bided her time and joined the white women as they approached the Capitol. No one objected. Once more Wells had scored a victory by refusing to surrender.

After the 19th Amendment passed and women finally won the right to vote, Wells continued to fight for Civil Rights and women’s rights. There are several good biographies of her, one of the best is Ida: A Sword among the Lions by Paula J. Giddings (2008). Its 800 pages may look daunting, but the book gives a real sense of how long and arduous the fight for justice and equality has been in the United States.