Rosa Parks had a predecessor. About 70 years before Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, a woman named Ida B. Wells would fight to stay put on a Nashville-bound train. That moment marked a turning point not just in Wells’ personal history, but in America’s as well.
Ida B. Wells’ Early Days
As is the case today, Ida B. Wells came of age in a world where changes in laws did not signal immediate changes in thoughts and behaviors. While born six months after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves at a federal level, Wells and her family lived in the South — Holly Springs, Mississippi, to be exact — and thus they remained subjected to the prejudice that no piece of legislation could fully quell.
In spite — or perhaps because — of their geography, Wells’ parents became very active in advocating for equality, particularly in education. Her father was a founding member of then-Shaw University (now Rust College), which Wells went on to attend.
As a young woman, Wells approached her education with enthusiasm, but at age 16 tragedy struck and Wells had to abandon her studies. As the eldest of eight children, when her parents and one younger brother died from yellow fever, she took on the care of her siblings.
In 1882, Wells and her siblings moved to Memphis to live with an aunt. Resourceful and driven, Wells — around 18 at this time — managed to land a few teaching jobs despite losing a few years of study to care for her family.
However, it didn’t take Ida B. Wells long to get back into academics, and soon she began going back and forth from Memphis to Nashville to attend college.
“I Proposed To Stay”
In the spring of 1884, one such train ride to Nashville would change the course of Ida B. Wells’ life forever.
Having purchased a first class ticket for her journey, she refused when one of the crew members demanded that she move to the segregated car of the train. The crew member tried to insist that first class was a whites-only privilege, but Wells refused to leave her seat on principle.
The crew member physically, and forcibly, removed her from the train. At some point, Wells bit his hand. As Wells recalled in her autobiography:
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.
Wells sued the railroad company. She won in local court, and received a $500 settlement. The defendants appealed, however, and the trial then went to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wells lost and had to return the settlement — and pay $200 in damages to the railroad.
Outraged, Wells decided to tell the story to local newspapers. Writing under the pseudonym Iola, Wells quickly established herself as a journalist on the beat of social justice, particularly its intersection with education. This decision came with consequences. When Wells began to vocalize her criticisms of the state of schools for black children in 1891, she lost her teaching post at a segregated school.
A Red Record
Continuing to write about racial injustice in an accessible manner, Ida B. Wells became particularly vocal on the subject of lynching. While the practice posed a threat to all African-Americans, it hit very close to home for Wells: after attempting to defend his store from a group of white men, one of Wells’ friends died by lynching.
Writing soon translated to physical activism, and Wells began to travel throughout the United States to investigate lynching, and kickstarted a robust campaign against the practice. Her reporting was widely disseminated in brochures, and she also published a book, A Red Record, an extraordinary monograph on lynching throughout the confederate South.
Wells’ keen observations and analysis are striking in their own right, but are even more-so when considered in a modern context. Much of what Wells perceives and elucidates in her writing about racial inequality and the social dynamics among races very much hold up today, when people continue to justify violence against people of color through means of law and order:
The first excuse given to the civilized world for the murder of unoffending Negroes was the necessity of the white man to repress and stamp out alleged “race riots.” For years immediately succeeding the war there was an appalling slaughter of colored people, and the wires usually conveyed to northern people and the world the intelligence, first, that an insurrection was being planned by Negroes, which, a few hours later, would prove to have been vigorously resisted by white men, and controlled with a resulting loss of several killed and wounded. It was always a remarkable feature in these insurrections and riots that only Negroes were killed during the rioting, and that all the white men escaped unharmed.
In the book, Wells offers statistics about lynchings throughout the South — as well as the names, locations, and the justification for the lynching of each individual about whom she learned. Words like “attempted” and “alleged” appear often as a precursor to the many crimes attributed to those who were lynched — an important qualifier to note, because these individuals more often than not did not have any kind of proper trial.
Sometimes, white men did not attempt to invoke claims of crime or violence to legitimize their call for lynching: reasons such as “insulting whites” appear in Wells’ account, as does “lynched as a warning,” and perhaps worst of all, “no offense.”
Wells continued to soldier on in the fight for social justice throughout her life, and this fight would eventually include campaigning for women’s suffrage.
Here, too, Wells faced barriers. Despite Wells’ highly-respected status as an advocate and journalist, white feminists leading the March on Washington still relegated Wells and other non-white feminists to either march at the back of their parade, or have a march of their own.
As a black woman, this experience signaled to Wells that racial equality is a necessary precondition for the attainment of true gender equality. If Wells needed any more evidence to support her belief, she got it in her quest for women’s suffrage: For all intents and purposes, white women received the right to vote before black women.
While the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited racial discrimination when it came to voting, it wasn’t until 1965 that the Voting Rights Act made the systematic suppression of black voters (through the administration of “literacy tests” or requirement to pay poll taxes, for example) that black women could participate in one of the pillars of democracy like their white female peers.
Ida B. Wells’ legacy, both as an advocate and scholar of social justice issues, endures today. Her fight to stop violence against people of color, to dismantle racial prejudice that oppressed and excluded, and her analyses on the sociopolitical structures built to keep white men in power remain relevant in 2017 — and beyond.
To honor Ida B. Wells’ legacy, we must not simply take note of these truths, but act. As Wells once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”