Days of Women's History
Ida B. Wells (1862 - 1931)
Amazing Stories about Women #1
Brave men do not gather by thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense. - Ida B. Wells
One of America's most remarkable women is the first of our 31 and possibly one of the least spoken about when referring to the history of women. Ida B. Wells was born a slave on July 16, 1862, just 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 compared to her $30.
She traveled the U.S. to fight the practice of lynching. One story that perhaps defines her stamina and courage begain on a train, on May 4th, 1884. The conductor of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company ordered her to give up her seat to a white man.
“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," Wells later recounted.
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 immediately 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, which reversed the monetary award and ordered 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.