Before Rosa, There was Ida

Ida B. Wells

“I refused, saying that the forward car 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……” He…and another man succeeded in dragging me out.” – Ida B. Wells 1884

I was first introduced to Ida B. Wells by one of our Girlfriends. Born a slave in 1862, she was two months old when Lincoln issued the first executive order of the Emancipation Proclamation declaring that all slaves in any state of the Confederacy that refused to return to Union control by 1863 were free. Her parents valued education above all and instilled it in Ida. When she was just 16, she would lose her mother, father and brother in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. With five remaining siblings, Wells personally assumed the role of caregiver in order to keep the family together and began teaching. During her tenure she would perhaps mold her view of the world as it viewed her. Although they taught the same curriculum, white teachers were paid $80 a month again her $30.

My favorite story of stamina and courage happened on May 4th, 1884 when the train conductor of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company ordered her to give up her seat to a white man (see quote above). Following the event, she hired an African American attorney to sue the railroad using the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, “which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations,” and immediate propelled herself into the public view, recounting the story for a black church weekly.

Her lawyer was paid off by the railroad, so she hired a white attorney, winning the case on December 24, 1884 with the court granting her a $500 settlement. The railroad appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, reversing the monetary award and ordering wells to pay court costs. “We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride.”

This is a tiny story that barely skirts the incredibly brave life of an extraordinary woman.

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