When Ida B. Wells was 22, she was asked by a conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man. She refused, and the conductor attempted to forcibly drag her out of her seat.
Wells wouldn't budge.
“The moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn't try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”
The year was 1884 -- about 70 years before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.
Wells’ life was full of such moments of courage and principle. Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, Wells was a vocal civil rights activist, suffragist and journalist who dedicated her life to fighting inequality.
“She was a fierce opponent of segregation and wrote prolifically on the civil injustices that beleaguered her world. By twenty-five she was editor of the Memphis-based Free Speech and Headlight, and continued to publicly decry inequality even after her printing press was destroyed by a mob of locals who opposed her message,” Google wrote in tribute of Wells.
The journalist would go on to work for Chicago's Daily Inter Ocean and the Chicago Conservator, one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the country. As Google notes, she “also travelled and lectured widely, bringing her fiery and impassioned rhetoric all over the world.”
Wells married Chicago attorney Ferdinand Barrett in 1895. She insisted on keeping her own name, becoming Ida Wells-Barnett -- a radical move for the time. The couple had four children.
Wells died in Chicago of kidney failure in 1931. She was 68.
Every year around her birthday, Holly Springs celebrates Wells’ life with a weekend festival. Mayor Kelvin Buck said at this year's event that people often overlook “the historic significance of Ida B. Wells in the history of the civil rights struggle in the United States,” per the South Reporter.
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