Honoring Ida B Wells On Her Birthday: Three Times She Took Action in the Face of Adversity

Nicole Rojas
Jul 16, 2020 - 10:00

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Ida B. Wells is a celebrated African American journalist, abolitionist and feminist who worked with conviction and determination to call out injustices in America. She was an integral anti-lynching crusader and social justice fighter. 

Wells was born on July 16, 1862 to James and Lizzie Wells, two active members of the Republican Party during the Reconstruction. Her father helped found Shaw University — now Rust College — where she would go on to receive her early education, according to Biography.com

She began to write about race and politics in the South under the moniker, “Iola.” Wells went on to own the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and the Free Speech

To commemorate her 158th birthday, The North Star has highlighted three instances in Wells’ life where she faced adversity head on. 

Ida Sues Chesapeake, Ohio, & Southwestern Railroad Company

In 1884, Wells sued the Chesapeake, Ohio, & Southwestern Railroad Company for an incident that occurred in September 1883. Wells had purchased a first class train ticket from Memphis to Woodstock, Tennessee. 

After boarding, a train conductor asked Wells to move from the ladies car to a crowded smoking car. When she resisted, Wells was “forcibly and with personal violence” removed from the train car, according to a transcript of the case. 

Wells sued the railroad company for $1,000 in damages and hired attorney Thomas F. Cassels. According to an archive of the case, Wells soon fired Cassels, believing he had been “bought off” by the railroad company and replaced him by former Union officer James M. Greer. 

Greer would go on to win the case by arguing that the railroad company violated two Tennessee laws. The first statue prohibited railroads from charging Black people first-class tickets and then moving them to second-class tickets. Meanwhile, the second statute required “separate but equal” accommodations for Black and white people. 

The judge ruled that the rail company failed to provide Wells with the accommodations to which she was entitled in the second car, “had no right to require her to ride in it, nor to remove her from the rear car; and such removal was a wrong for which she is entitled to damages.” Wells was awarded $500 in damages, but the win was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court three years later in 1887. 

People’s Grocery Lynching 

Wells, a prolific journalist, was determined to cover the lynchings of Black Americans in the South, particularly those of her friend and his two business associates. Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart owned a grocery store called the People’s Grocery in Memphis, Tennessee, that was taking business away from white grocer William Barnett. 

“These were three young businessmen who were doing very well. These were three young men who were known by both Blacks and whites in the community. This was a shock, not just to Black folks, but to white folks,” Earnestine Jenkins, a professor at the University of Memphis, told The Commercial Appeal.

Over a few days, several altercations erupted between Black and white residents near the store and the co-owners armed themselves to protect the People’s Grocery in case of attack. While guarding their store, the men shot upon several white men, including a deputized Barnett. They were arrested and on March 9, 1892, they were taken from jail by a white mob and shot to death. 

Wells, a close friend of Moss, launched an anti-lunching crusade following his brutal lynching. Jenkins told The Commercial Appeal that Wells would use her reporting to prove that despite many claiming lynchings were a form of justice for white women, they were in fact based on economics. 

“The thing that got her really threatened with not coming back to Memphis is she was the first one to say lynchings were not occurring because Black men are raping white women,” the professor said. “She said these men were killed because of the economic success that they were having, because of the larger economic success that Black people were actually having in spite of Jim Crow at the end of the 19th century.” 

Wells placed her life at risk and traveled throughout the South to gather information on other lynchings. Her consistent reporting on lynchings in the American South led to threats to her life and her livelihood, including a mob attack on one of her newspaper offices. She later chose to remain in the North and to write about lynchings for the New York Age, a newspaper run by T. Thomas Fortune, who was formerly enslaved. 

Protest Pamphlet Published in 1893

In 1893, Wells, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Chicago lawyer Ferdinand L. Barnett wrote and circulated the protest pamphlet “The Reason why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition: The Afro-American’s Contribution to Columbian Literature.” 

The trio of Black leaders called for a boycott of the World’s Columbian Exposition after accusing the exposition’s committee from excluding African Americans and portraying the Black community in a bad light. 

The exhibits at the fair were controlled by all-white committees and exhibits that did acknowledge African Americans, such as the Aunt Jemima pancake exhibit, did so to mock and belittle them, according to professor of history Robert W. Rydell. Wells, Douglass and Barnett sought to highlight all the accomplishments of Black Americans since the abolition of enslavement while also calling attention to the realities of the Jim Crow South. 

Additional reporting by Branden Janese.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.

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