July 16 – Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells

Posted on July 16, 2014

Today's famous birthday is someone with a long list of accomplishments.

Ida B. Wells was a teacher. She was a journalist. She was a wife and mother. She was a public speaker. She helped found the NAACP. Her careful research on lynching and her analysis of the reasons for this horrifying practice cause some to call her a sociologist. She was a newspaper editor. Most importantly, Wells was active in movements for women's rights and suffrage, in the civil rights movement, and especially in the movement against lynching.

Lynching is a horrible thing in which a mob kills someone, often by hanging, supposedly because that person committed a crime – but without a trial, usually without even a shred of evidence....because usually the crimes were non-existent!

Wells wrote that one reason for lynchings was to control black people, especially black men, so that they would not compete with white people economically. She wrote that black economic progress threatened white Southerners in an economic way, but it also brought into question their firmly-held idea of black inferiority. With the double-whammy of economics and ideology, Wells was skeptical that white Southern society could give up the practice without being shamed into doing so. She traveled in Europe, especially in Scotland and England, trying to drum up support for her cause.

She ended up being successful in starting several anti-lynching groups that tried to exert pressure on the United States to guarantee the safety of black people in the South.

I found it interesting that Ida B. Wells started out life enslaved, the child of an enslaved couple. About half a year after she was born in Mississippi (on this date in 1862), President Abraham Lincoln freed her and her family by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Wells's father was a master carpenter who worked for the advancement of black people, who involved himself in politics, and who even attended a university. He had to drop out of college in order to help his family.

Both of Wells's parents and her youngest brother died of yellow fever when she was just 16 years old, and she became a school teacher so that she could keep her five younger siblings together as a family. She attended the same university her father had attended, although she was expelled after a confrontation with the school president!

I didn't find out what that confrontation involved, but another incident was spelled out clearly in the bios I read. Wells was traveling by train from Memphis to Woodstock (a rural community outside of Memphis), and she paid for the first-class ladies' car of the train. When a conductor ordered her to move to the smoker car, Wells refused to give up the seat she had paid for. She was forcibly removed from the train.

Ah! Shades of Rosa Parks and the bus-seat controversy—which happened around 80 years later!

Wells didn't take it lying down. She filed a lawsuit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad – and she won! Unfortunately, the Tennessee Supreme Court soon overturned the decision.

Until the train incident, Wells had spent most of her time rearing her siblings and teaching school. After the incident, she began writing and editing, speaking out and becoming an activist.

It's amazing to me that so many people are able to transcend illness, death of loved ones, lack of economic stability, prejudice, all manner of hardships—and still manage to advance themselves, their families, and—in cases like Ida B. Wells—all of society.
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