by Christopher Grisham
Have you ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks? For many of us, they are the first names that pop into our minds when we think of the fight for civil rights. What about the name Ida B. Wells?
Portrait of Ida B. Wells, TSM Collection.
When Ida B. Wells was born in 1862, the United States was fighting the Civil War and most African Americans were still enslaved. The war and slavery ended just a few years later in 1865, but African Americans were still not treated as equals with white people. There were laws in Tennessee to segregate, or separate, white and black people. Does this seem fair to you? Ida did not believe it was. One time, when she was twenty years old, she chose to fight these laws on a train ride.
In 1883, Ida got on a train in Memphis to go to Woodstock, TN to start her job as a teacher. There were two cars on the train for passengers and one car for luggage. Ida took a seat in the second car of the train because the first car seemed to be more wild and loud. You may understand how she felt if you have ever been on a loud school bus. The train pulled out of the station in Memphis. The conductor came around to take the tickets. When he got to Ida, he told her the second car was for white passengers only. She would have to move to the first car. She didn’t think that seemed fair. She told him that she would not get out of her seat and he should leave her alone.
The train pulled into the next stop. The conductor came to Ida again and told her that she would have to move seats. She refused again. Then, the conductor grabbed her and tried to pull her out of the seat. Ida grabbed the seat and held on. Two other people rushed over to help. Who do you think they were trying to help? It wasn’t Ida. There were now three people pulling her out of her seat. They forced her off the train. Her dress was even torn in the fight.
The Pride of Tennessee, featuring Ida B. Wells, TSM Collection.
The train pulled away and left her standing alone at the station. She had paid for a ticket on the train that said she could sit anywhere she wanted. She knew it wasn’t fair to treat her differently because of the color of her skin. Ida stood up for what she believed in and fought back.
She spent the rest of her life fighting to make sure that everyone would be treated fairly. Unfortunately, that would not happen in her lifetime, but it did inspire many people. Seventy-two years later, Rosa Parks would follow in Ida B. Wells’ footsteps and refuse to give up her seat on a bus. The brave actions of many, including Ida B. Wells, helped spark the Civil Rights movement that changed laws all over the country to help everyone be treated fairly. Over 100 years later, her actions and writings still hold many lessons for us to learn today.
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” – Ida B. Wells
Civil Rights – freedoms protected with laws
Enslaved – someone whose freedom and choice has been taken away
Segregate – separate or divide
Car (train) – part of a train set aside for a specific use: passenger, luggage, storage
What major event was happening the same year that Ida B. Wells was born?
How old was Ida B. Wells when she took this train ride?
Why did Ida B. Wells refuse to give up her seat on the train?
When was a time that you felt like you were being treated unfairly? How did you handle that situation?
Learn more about Ida B. Wells and her work as a journalist here:
Tennessee State Social Studies Standards:
5.43 Explain the impact of the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1870, including poll taxes, segregation, and funds for public education. (T.C.A. § 49-6-1028)
5.45 Identify how the rise of vigilante justice (e.g., Ku Klux Klan), black codes, and Jim Crow laws impacted Tennessee and the nation.
AAH.24 Identify influential African Americans of the time period, and analyze their impact on American and Tennessee society (e.g., Robert R. Church, Samuel McElwee, Randolph Miller, James Napier, Ida B. Wells).
US.35 Examine challenges related to civil liberties and racial/ethnic tensions during this era, including (T.C.A. § 49-6-1006):
First Red Scare
Immigration Quota Acts of the 1920s
Resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan
Efforts of Ida B. Wells
Emergence of Garveyism
Rise of the NAACP
Christopher Grisham is the K-12 Education Manager at the Tennessee State Museum.