Ida B. Wells wasn't one to cower from adversity. Born a slave, Ms. Wells grew up in the recently emancipated South, where racial tensions ran high. One May evening, she bought a first-class train ticket on her way home from teaching in a Tennessee school. When the conductor insisted that Wells give up her seat for a white passenger, she said no.
This story may sound familiar. Rosa Parks famously refused to relinquish her bus seat in 1955. But Wells took her stand 71 years earlier.
Wells became one of America's most uncompromising crusaders against racial injustice. Her work as a suffragist and journalist helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement of Ms. Parks and Martin Luther King.
After that fateful train ride, she sued the railroad company. Black passengers should be able to sit in whatever seat they could afford, she said, not forced into the dingy smoking car even after buying a first-class ticket. The Tennessee court agreed, awarding her $500 in damages. But three years later, the State Supreme Court reversed the decision, arguing that Wells' case was designed only to harass the railroad.
This shocked her, writes historian Mary Helen Washington in a collection of Wells' diary entries. She had believed that the judicial system would offer her a fair trial. Instead, she watched an era of Jim Crow laws spread across the South.
Wells felt she had to act. She moved to Chicago and became a journalist. “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” Wells said. Writing about injustice would force people to confront it and, maybe, inspire change. She became an owner of two newspapers, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and, later, the Free Speech. Her work documented lynchings, the destruction of black-owned businesses, and the women's suffragist movement.
As her career developed, she was one of only two black women who signed the petition that led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She founded Chicago's first kindergarten for black children. She campaigned for Oscar Stanton De Priest, the city's first black alderman. And, as the National Park Service writes, she "successfully integrated the U.S. suffrage movement when she refused to walk with the other black women at the rear of a 1913 Washington parade and instead infiltrated the ranks of her white Illinois 'peers' after the march began."
Wells' uncompromising devotion to social justice pushed many of the her contemporaries to label her as a radical. She opposed prominent civil rights figure Booker T. Washington and his strategies and, disgusted by the major political parties, became one of the first black women to run for state office in Illinois.
When she died in 1931, her name was left out of many popular histories of the civil right movement. But her granddaughter, Alfreda Duster Ferrell, says Wells has enjoyed a resurgence. Ms. Ferrel spoke over the weekend at the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Art Gallery and Museum in Holly Springs, Miss., where descendents, historians, and the town's mayor gathered for the 19th annual festival in Wells' honor.
“We pay homage to her for her bravery and the role she played as a civil rights activist and journalist,” Delcenia Daniels, the museum's curator, told The South Reporter. “Did you know that Ida B. Wells was the co-founder of the NAACP and began the anti-lynching crusade in America, and was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, July 16, 1862?”