Memphis Black history: Ida B. Wells nevertheless persisted

As most of us know, February is Black History Month. Memphis holds a wealth of African-American history in its own backyard. Ideas and movements were born here that have created ripples throughout the world.

For the first installment of Memphis Black History, it seems prudent to write about journalist and early civil rights leader Ida B. Wells. 

Wells was born in 1862 into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi. After the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, her father, James, became known as a “race man.’ He worked hard for the advancement of freed slaves in the south. Sadly, when Wells was 16, both he and her mother, Lizzie, died from the yellow fever epidemic in Mississippi.

Ida B. Wells' portrait is part of the Upstanders mural at Memphis' Facing History and Ourselves facility.To be able to keep her siblings with her, 16-year-old Wells got a job as an elementary school teacher. Even though she was taking care of her brothers and sisters, she was only paid $30 a month, while white teachers with the same experience were getting paid $80.

At 21, she moved to Shelby County where she would be better compensated. She attended college in the summer to learn all she could.

In 1884, at age 22, Wells was dragged off of a train for refusing to give up her first class seat. She got a lawyer in Memphis and won her case but lost the appeal in the Tennessee Supreme Court.

She wrote articles detailing her experiences for the Living Way, a Black church weekly newsletter, as well as the Memphis-based newspaper Free Speech and Headlight, which had anti-segregation sentiments. In 1891, Wells was dismissed from her teaching post for criticizing conditions in colored schools.

When Wells' friend, Thomas Moss, was lynched along with two of his friends after being arrested for an altercation at his job that Moss did not have a role in, she decided that enough was enough.

She wrote an article in the Free Speech and Headlight urging Blacks to leave Memphis altogether. Six thousand people left. Even more organized boycotts of white businesses. Ida moved to Chicago and continued to investigate lynchings and catapult the issue to national recognition. 

Ida B. Wells was persistent. She was a fighter. She was a writer. When she saw inequity, she acted.
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Read more articles by Morgan Beckford.

Morgan Beckford is a long-time Memphian, performing musician and educator. Currently, she serves as the coordinator of in-school partnerships for the Memphis Music Initiative and summer conservatory director for Opera Memphis.