Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was born on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Wells was one of eight children born to James and Elizabeth Wells. Her father, James Wells, went with his father to Holy Springs at eighteen to develop skills he used as a carpenter’s apprentice.
Her mother, Elizabeth Wells, was one of ten children born on a plantation in Virginia. She tried to relocate her family and siblings following the Civil War, but was unsuccessful and eventually sold away. James Wells appreciated education, working as a trustee at the former Shaw College, now Rust College. He had the opportunity in 1867 to begin his own carpentry business, while her mother was known as a “famous cook.”
In Sept. 1878, Ida B. Wells tragically lost both her parents and three siblings due to a fever epidemic. To ensure that her siblings would not be separated and sent to various foster homes, Wells became a teacher at a black elementary school in Holly Springs.
During the days she was teaching, her paternal grandmother, Peggy Wells, as well as other family and friends, would stay with her siblings and take care of them during the week. When her grandmother passed away due to a stroke and she lost her sister Eugenia, she went with her two remaining sisters to Memphis in 1883 to stay with her aunt Fanny.
Wells’ parents instilled in her the importance of education, and she briefly attended the historically black liberal arts university Rust College. After some time, Wells was expelled due to a dispute that took place between her and a university president. After moving to Memphis, Wells was hired by the Shelby County school system.
In the summer, she was able to attend a summer session at Fisk University. She even had the opportunity to attend Lemoyne-Owens College in Memphis as well. Her political opinions caught the eyes of many due to her views on women’s rights. When she was 24, she wrote, “I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify revenge.”
On May 4, 1884, Wells faced racial discrimination on a train. The train conductor with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad demanded Wells to give up her seat to first-class women and to move to the smoking car. After refusing to move, two men and the conductor dragged her out of the car. She gained publicity and displayed a sense of awareness when she wrote an article about her treatment on the train for “The Living Way,” a black church weekly newspaper.
She hired an African-American attorney to sue the railroad company. When her lawyer was paid off, she decided to hire a white attorney. On Dec. 24, 1884, she won her case, though she was only granted a $500 award by the local circuit court.
Wells was not only a teacher, journalist and a sister, but also a wife. In 1895, she settled in Chicago and married attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett. Barnett was a civil rights activist and journalist in Chicago who spoke about lynchings and civil rights for African Americans.
Barnett founded the Chicago Conservator, which was the first black newspaper in Chicago in 1878. In 1893, Wells began writing for the paper and eventually gained partial ownership as well as the role of editor. The couple had four children together named Charles, Herman, Ida and Alfreda. Though Wells had to balance her role as a mother and a national activist, she had some difficulty. She shared, in a chapter in her autobiography, “A Divided Duty,” her hardship of splitting her time between her family and her work.
When Ida was in Chicago, anti-lynching became more of her focus. She was active in national women’s club movements and ran for Illinois State Senate. Though Wells-Barnett was not a feminist writer, she called for all races and genders to be accountable for their actions. Her actions showed African American women that they can speak up and fight for their rights. She also showed the importance of racial and gender discrimination.
It was apparent throughout all of Ida Bell Wells-Barnett’s life that her admiration extended not only to her family and friends, but to people around the world.