Seventy-two years before Rosa Parks and the NAACP desegregated public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama, a 21-year-old teacher attempted to do the same in Tennessee ““ twice. You may have heard the name of Ida B. Wells Barnett, the journalist, suffragist, and founding member of the NAACP, but before she became one of the early twentieth century’s most prominent civil rights leaders, she was a very young teacher on a train.
Ida B. Wells Barnett was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862. When the Civil War ended in 1865, her father Jim Wells became involved in politics. He was a member of a local political organization for former slaves and campaigned for a school for freedmen in Holly Springs, where only 10% of slaves had been allowed to read. Shaw University was established in 1866, and the entire Wells family enrolled in its first year. When Ida was only fourteen years old a yellow fever epidemic in northern Mississippi killed her parents and youngest brother. For almost two years, she and her elderly grandmother cared for the younger children while she attended classes at Shaw. In 1878, former political acquaintances of Jim Wells found Ida a job teaching the children of sharecroppers in rural Marshall County, Mississippi.
In 1883, Ida and her two younger sisters moved to Memphis, where she taught in Memphis’ segregated public schools. During teaching breaks, she traveled to Nashville to continue her education at Fisk University. It was on one of these trips that Ida began her lifelong quest for justice. On September 15, 1883, she bought a first class ticket on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, but after she was seated the conductor ordered her to the “Jim Crow” smoking car to make room for a white man. Eight years prior, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 had prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color, in public transportation and accommodations, but railroad companies throughout the South openly defied this law. Ida later wrote in her autobiography:
[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, 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.
[pullquote]”[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, 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.”[/pullquote]
Ida returned to Memphis and immediately hired James Greer, a white attorney from her hometown of Holly Springs, to sue the railroad. On May 4, 1884, before the first case went to trial, Ida was again forcibly removed from a Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad car for sitting in first class instead of the smoking car. Later that year, Ida’s case against the railroad company finally came to trial, and the circuit court judge awarded her $500 ““ or the equivalent of $12,000 today. Unfortunately, the railroad company appealed the case, and in 1885 the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling.
There was however a greater benefit: Ida’s suit against the railroad company led her to journalism. While waiting for her case against the railroad to wind its way through the court system, Ida wrote for several African American newspapers and periodicals. At first, she earned very little money, but that changed with the Tennessee Supreme Court verdict. This was the first case of its kind in the South, and it generated tremendous public interest. While white newspapers covered the story with headlines such as “A Darky Damsel Obtains A Verdict For Damages,” African American owned newspapers nationwide wanted to hear about the experiences of the young school teacher who challenged both a railroad company and the state of Tennessee. By 1886, her articles were appearing in prominent newspapers in Boston and New York, and the resulting speaking engagements gave her an opportunity to travel. She began to collect stories of desperate living conditions, the constant threat of lynching, and the lack of educational opportunities for African Americans. In 1891, Ida became co-owner and editor of Memphis’ Free Speech and Headlight newspaper. That year, she wrote an editorial criticizing the disparity between white and black schools in Memphis. She was fired from her teaching position by the Memphis Board of Education, which allowed her to devote all of her time to her burgeoning career as a journalist and activist.