Before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., other African-Americans fought for black rights in the South. One of these activists was a young woman named Ida B. Wells.
Although she was born a slave in 1862, Ida B. Wells had advantages that other slave children did not. Unlike most slaves, both of Ida’s parents could read. They taught their oldest daughter Ida to read when she was very young. After the Civil War ended and slaves were freed, Ida’s parents got involved in the politics of the Republication Party, which promoted the rights of free blacks. Her parents died from yellow fever when Ida was just a teenager, but she inherited their interest in education and equal rights for blacks.
Ida went to college and became a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. One day, she purchased a first-class ticket on the train and went to sit in her seat. A white conductor came up to her and told her to move to the black section, which didn’t have first-class accomodations. Ida refused and was removed from the train. She sued the railroad company and won her case in a lower court, but the railroad won in an appeal.
Although she didn’t make much money at first, Ida had a passion for writing. Eventually, she edited her own newspaper, which she named Free Speech. She wrote about the poor quality of schools for blacks and the need for black people to stand up for their rights. One incident, the lynching of a good friend Tom Moss, changed Ida’s life.
Moss owned a grocery store on the edge of the white and black parts of the town. In 1892, he and two other black men were shot when they tried to defend Moss’ store from a white mob.
After Moss’ death, Ida changed her position on black self-defense and told her readers to save their money so they could leave Memphis. Her articles were so effective that the city’s economy started to suffer because of the lack of black customers. Blacks who remained in Memphis started walking to work instead of paying to ride the streetcars that were owned by whites. The owners of the streetcar company asked Ida to tell her readers to start riding the cars again. Instead, she wrote an article calling for a black boycott of the streetcars.
Her friend’s death inspired Ida to expose the evils of lynching through writing and speeches. In one pamphlet, called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases,” Ida wrote, “The mob spirit has increased with alarming frequency and violence. Over a thousand black men, women and children have been thus sacrificed the past ten years. Masks have long been thrown aside and the lynchings of the present day take place in broad daylight.”
During a trip to the Northeast, the offices of her paper were destroyed by a mob. While in New York, she learned that some whites threatened to kill her if she returned to Memphis. As she encouraged her former readers to do, Ida settled in the North. She continued to write and give speeches about the injustice of lynching. She traveled extensively throughout the North and even brought her anti-lynching campaign to England.