On July 16th, we commemorate the birthday of Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), a true champion of the people — the founder of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Wells was known for being a radical anti-lynching journalist, but that only describes one part of her extraordinary life. To celebrate her, I’m here to tell you five true stories about Wells’s life that prove there was more to this legendary woman than you may have heard before.
1She defended herself against a racist train conductor, and then she sued him.
When Ida B. Wells was 20 years old, she bought a first-class train ticket going from Memphis, Tennessee to Woodstock, where she had a job as a teacher. When the train conductor came through the car to punch tickets, he politely informed the young Wells that she was in the wrong car and needed to move, and until she did, he could not accept her ticket. Ida insisted that she knew exactly what car she was in, and it was not the wrong one. The exchange that followed is best retold by Ida herself. Court documents quote her as saying, “He said to me that he would treat me like a lady, but that I must go into the other car, and I replied, that if he wished to treat me like a lady, he would leave me alone.”
The shadiness of this exchange was not warning enough for the conductor. Later, Wells wrote in her autobiography, “[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.”
Just to recap: When a racist train conductor put his hands on a 20-year-old Ida B Wells and demanded she move to the colored car, she not only refused — she fought back when he attempted to physically remove her.
This story of self-defense would be amazing on its own if it ended here, but Ida was never one to leave well enough alone. When she got back to Memphis, she found an attorney and sued the railroad company for $500 (the equivalent of about $11,000 in 2015) AND. SHE. WON. The railroad company was ordered to pay Wells $500, but the verdict was later appealed and overturned in the Tennessee Supreme Court because haters gon’ hate.
2She was fired for calling out her racist bosses.
For context, Ida was riding the Southwestern Railroad Company train that day to get to her job as a teacher at a school for African-American children. The eventual lawsuit generated so much public interest that Ida wrote about it in a weekly publication for Black Christians known as The Living Way — a move that kick-started her writing career. The young educator used her new platform to call out Memphis establishments that supported segregation. Separate but equal policies weren’t working, and Ida was not ashamed to say it.
By the age of 28, Ida had found her editorial voice and was writing under the pen name Iola. She was the co-editor of a popular Black-owned newspaper in Memphis called the Free Speech and Headlight, and as an educator, she used this platform to argue that the quality of education offered to Black students was sub-par compared to the education offered to their white counterparts. Her editorial coverage was so inflammatory that the Memphis School Board of Education fired her. Not one to be deterred, Wells chucked up the deuces and transitioned into writing full time, becoming the anti-lynching legend we know today.
3She is one of the founders of the NAACP.
Most people assume that the founding members of the NAACP were a bunch of old Black and Jewish men sitting in a room, discussing racial inequality. This is mostly true. It was a bit of a boys club, but there were also a few women at the first National Afro American Council meeting. This organization would eventually become the NAACP — one of these women was none other than Ida “B. is for Badass” Wells.
That’s right. Ida B. Wells is one of the founding members of the NAACP. Despite her presence at that first conference, she wasn’t elected one of the founding officers — though one of the other women in attendance made the cut. There were concerns that Ida’s views on lynching were too radical at the time, even though the NAACP was formed in direct response to a lynching that had occurred in Illinois.
Wells stayed with the organization long enough to be part of the transition from the National Afro-American Council to the NAACP, but she soon butted heads with some of the officers and left. She felt that the boys club didn’t have enough action-based initiatives, and she shifted her attention to a cause more known for kicking ass and taking names: women’s’ suffrage.
4She had (justified) beef with white feminists of her time.
In the early 1900s, she found allies in women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frances Willard. At first, their cause seemed to transcended racism. Then, when the 15th amendment was passed, giving Black men the right to vote — not women — shit hit the fan. Wells sympathized with Black men who were lynched for exercising their new right to vote. Her colleagues, on the other hand, focused their attention on the misogynist political slight — conveniently glazing over the violence inflicted on these men. But Willard felt that, in order to push the Suffrage movement forward, suffragists had to grow their ranks. She encouraged Southern women to join their cause and appealed to them the best way she knew how: by slandering Black people.
Justifiably, Wells and other Black suffragettes took offense when Willard said in an 1890 interview with the New York Voice, “‘Better whiskey and more of it’ is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs. The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities.” She also implied that Black people were drunks who “multiplied like the locusts of Egypt.” Susan B. Anthony herself said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman,” seemingly forgetting that there were women in the world who also happened to be Black.
Wells, realizing that her allies were as dependable as a wet rag, took her plight overseas. She spoke to British audiences about what an immense problem lynching was for Blacks in the American South. European audiences couldn’t believe that white American suffragists didn’t speak out against these crimes and gave Willard an opportunity to defend herself in a live debate with Wells in 1894. Ida, not one to be bested, came with receipts and pulled out a copy of the 1890 New York Voice interview at the debate. Game. Set. Match.
5Nobody puts Ida in a corner.
Speaking of racist pseudo-allies, after her beef with Willard and Anthony came to a head, Wells threw her full support of women’s suffrage into her local Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, where she lived at the time. After catching wind of a suffrage parade in 1913, Wells brought her delegation all the way from Chicago to Washington D.C. to march in solidarity.
When they arrived, the organizers of the parade told Ida and her cohorts to march in the back of the parade because, well, racism. When Ida and the Alpha Suffrage Club protested, they were told to walk in the back or not at all. They asked the Illinois Suffrage Club to back them up, but found no support from women who were practically their neighbors. Wells, a true champion of principle, told the organizers that her chapter would not walk. The parade went on as planned, but if you thought Ida B. Badass Wells was done, think again. Once the parade began, Ida marched to the front, hopped the barricade, and marched with the white delegation from Illinois.
Happy birthday, Ida B. Wells. Thank you for everything.