As progressives, we can commemorate Black History Month by celebrating the lives of some of the African American progressives who have worked to bring equality to America. In 1976, February was officially designated by the U.S. Government as Black History Month. Black History Month was an idea of African American historian, Carter Godwin Woodson, who designated the second week of February, to celebrate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, as Black History Week. Mr. Woodson was a remarkable individual and I will explore his life in a later essay, however, today I want to focus on a remarkably brave woman whose life deserves to be remembered and celebrated by all Americans.
Ida Bell Wells was born in 1862 (one year prior to the Emancipation Proclamation) in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She was one of eight children. Her mother was a cook and her father a carpenter who used these skills to support their large family after being freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Wells’ father was very influential in the life of young Ida. He was actually the son of the man who owned him. His father was able to secure a carpentry apprenticeship for him and he became a master carpenter. Working as a skilled carpenter allowed him to support his family. He firmly believed that education was the way out of poverty. He was a very outspoken man who wanted to see his children educated. He had attended college (a rare feat for any individual at that time in American history) but had to stop to support his family. Ida grew up hearing her father speak of the importance of education and the equality of the races. She never doubted that she was anyone’s equal. Later, she would describe her father’s expectations by saying: “Our job was to go to school and learn all we could.”
When she was 16 years old, a yellow fever epidemic claimed the lives of her parents and youngest brother. Family members told her that the best thing for the remaining children would be to place them with different relatives. She refused to break up the family. She dropped out of college and took a job as an elementary teacher at a black school. She was outraged when she learned that black teachers were paid 30 dollars a month, while white teachers made 80 dollars month. However, she managed to keep the family together. In 1888, after securing carpentry apprenticeships for her two oldest brothers, she moved the remaining family to Memphis, Tennessee to live with her aunt. She planned to keep working as a teacher; but she would soon experience a life changing event that would place her on another career path.
Ida wanted to teach in the Memphis public schools so she could be closer to her siblings. While waiting to the take the necessary teacher examination, she began a teaching job in the rural town of Woodstock, which is about 20 miles outside of Memphis. The 1875 Civil Rights Act had banned discrimination in public places (hotels, theaters, railroads) on the basis of race, creed or color. The law was not enforced and most railroads continued to segregate their passengers based on race. On a train ride from Woodstock to Memphis she had purchased a first class ticket for the Ladies Car. A conductor ordered her to move to the more crowded smoker’s car. She refused. He grabbed her and attempted to physically drag her out of the car. She bit his hand and he let go. He left the car and returned with two other men who dragged her to the smoker’s car. She was furious. She sued the railroad company and won a settlement of 500 dollars. The railroad company appealed the decision all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s decision. Eighty years before Rosa Parks, Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat, sued a powerful railroad company and won a victory for civil rights.
As a result of this experience she began to write political columns for her local church newspaper. Soon, she developed a reputation as a fighter for equality. Saving her money she was able to become part owner of a small, independent newspaper that served the growing Black community in Memphis. In 1891, she was fired from her job as a Memphis teacher for writing about the inequality of funding provided to black and white students. She never worked as a teacher again. She devoted the rest of her life to campaigning for civil rights.
In 1892, three of her friends were lynched in Memphis. The men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewarty operated a grocery store that served the black community. A group of white grocers felt that the store was stealing their rightful business. A white mob attacked the store and the black owners fought back. Three white men were shot and injured in the melee. The black owners were arrested and jailed. The white populace was enraged that a black man had shot a white man. A mob attacked the jail overpowered the police (one deputy was killed in the riot) and lynched the three men. Wells was outraged. She urged the black community to leave Memphis and wrote:
The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.
Three months after the lynching of her friends, she began an anti-lynching campaign. She began a series of investigative articles that documented that blacks were being lynched for ‘crimes’ ranging from the failure to pay debts and being drunk in public. As a result of her articles her office was attacked and firebombed. In 1893, she left Memphis and moved to Chicago. She would never again live in the South.
While living in Chicago she continued to fight for equality. She campaigned with the social activist Jane Addams to prevent Chicago from establishing segregated schools. In 1909, she helped to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was a suffragette who fought for Women’s Suffrage. She toured America and Europe speaking for equality. Her energy was boundless. In 1930, at the age of 67, she ran for the Illinois Senate. She lost the race but her campaign helped make it easier for future female candidates. She died a year later at the age of 68.
Living in 2013 it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand the bravery of Ida B. Wells. She fought for equality and justice her entire life. She never backed away from a fight. She was not a pragmatist willing to compromise the principles in which she believed. She was a woman who wanted nothing more than equal treatment. She left the world a better place than she found it.