Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862 — six months before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. At 14 she became a school teacher. When she was 16 both her parents died of yellow fever and Ida B. Wells moved to Memphis, Tennessee where she continued to teach school.
In 1884 Wells was ordered to move to the segregated Jim Crow car of a train. The 25-year old school teacher refused. Here’s a quote from Ida B. Wells:
“I refused. The conductor tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth on the back of his hand. He went forward and got the baggage man and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”
Wells hired an attorney in Memphis to sue the railroad. She won the case in the local court, but the Tennessee Supreme court reversed it and she had to pay $200.00 in court costs.
People wanted to know about her experience so she began to write for black owned newspapers. Her editorials critical of the inadequate black schools caused her to lose her teaching job. Wells continued her writing and in 1889 she became a part owner of the Memphis newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight.
In 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched in Memphis because a white owned grocery had lost customers to their grocery store. After the murder of her friends, Wells wrote: “There is only one thing for us to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in courts; but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” Then a mob burned down her paper’s office and she was forced to leave Memphis under threat of her life.
Ida B. Wells settled in Chicago. In 1893 she published a pamphlet denouncing the exclusion of blacks from the Chicago World’s Fair. She also wrote a book called: Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases. Wells worked and wrote tirelessly against lynching, for women’s right to vote, against the segregation of Chicago schools, and for many other just causes. She helped found several organizations, including the NAACP.
Wells is best known for her courageous work against lynching in America. Between 1880 and 1960, there were more than 4,000 documented lynchings in the USA. She wrote: “Brave men do not gather by the thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense.”
Through out the years of public lynchings in America, the US government remained silent and passive. In 2005, the US Senate passed a resolution apologizing for not enacting anti-lynching legislation.
Ida B. Wells’ life-long and courageous stand against racial injustice makes her my #8 greatest American.