Early Illinois Women

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the daughter of a slave. The title of her autobiography is an apt description of her life's work: "Crusade for Justice". Educated in Holly Springs, her first profession was that of teacher.

In 1884, Ida refused to be intimidated on a train and took the railroad to court over the incident [see excerpt below from Ida's autobiography about the incedent.] In 1889, Ida Wells became the editor of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper. She became nationally known during the 1890s for a series of articles she wrote drawing attention to lynching of African Americans in the American South. In 1892, her book A Red Record delved further into the topic of lynching, presenting detailed statistics of its occurrence. Some in Memphis were not supportive of her views and responded by burning her print shop and threatening to lynch Ida Wells.

Ida moved to Chicago in 1893. She was active in a number of organizations promoting African American civil rights. Her husband, Ferdinand Barnett was the owner of the Chicago newspaper called the Conservator. Barnett founded the Conservator in 1878 and it was probably the first African American newspaper in Illinois. Ida was among those who wrote for the paper. Unfortunately, only scattered issues have been preserved.

Both Ida and Ferdinand supported a variety of organizations promoting social and political reform. Among Ida's efforts was a protest against the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 for failing to erect a pavilion to honor African American contributions in American history.

Ida was instrumental in the formation of the Negro Fellowship League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the first black female suffrage group in Illinois. She died in 1931. In 1974, her former home on South Martin Luther King Jr Drive in Chicago was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

From Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.:

"I secured a school in Shelby County, Tennessee, which paid a better salary and began studying for the examination for city schoolteacher which meant an even larger increase in salary. One day (4 May 1884) while riding back to my school I took a seat in the ladies' coach of the train as usual. There were no jim crow cars then. But ever since the repeal of the Civil Rights Bill by the United States Supreme Court. There had been efforts all over the South to draw the color line on the railroads.

When the train started and the conductor came along to collect tickets, he took my ticket, then handed it back to me and told me that he couldn't take my ticket there. I thought that if he didn't want the ticket I wouldn't bother about it so went on reading. In a little while when he finished taking tickets, he came back and told me I would have to go in the other car. I refused, saying that the forward car was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies' car I proposed to stay. He tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth on 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 baggagemen and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out. They were encouraged to do this by the attitude of the white ladies and gentlemen in the car; some of them even stood on the seats so that they could get a good view and continued applauding the conductor for his brave stand.

By this time the train had stopped at the first station. When I saw that they were determined to drag me into the smoker, which was already filled with colored people and those who were smoking, I said I would get off the train rather than go in - which I did. Strangely, I held on to my ticket all this time, and although the sleeves of my linen duster had been torn out and I had been pretty roughly handled, I had not been hurt physically.

I went back to Memphis and engaged a colored lawyer to bring suit against the railroad for me. After months of delay I found he had been bought off by the road, and as he was the only colored lawyer in town I had to get a white one. This man, Judge Greer, kept his pledge with me and the case was finally brought to trial in the circuit court. Judge Pierce, who was an ex-union soldier from Minnesota, awarded me damages of five hundred dollars. I can see to this day the headlines in the Memphis Appeal announcing DARKY DAMSEL GETS DAMAGES.

The railroad appealed the case to the state's supreme court, which reversed the findings of the lower court, and I had to pay the costs. Before this was done, the railroad's lawyer had tried every means in his power to get me to compromise the case, but I indignantly refused. Had I done so, I would have been a few hundred dollars to the good instead of having to pay out over two hundred dollars in court costs.

It was twelve years afterward before I knew why the case had attracted so much attention and was fought so bitterly by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. It was the first case in which a colored plaintiff in the South had appealed to a state court since the replea of the Civil Rights Bill byt the United States Supreme Court. The gist of that decision was that Negroes were not wards of the nation but citizens of the individual states, and should therefore appeal to the state courts for justice instead of to the federal court. The success of my case would have set a precedent which others would doubtless have followed."


  1. Wells, Ida B. (1970) Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Edited by Alfreda M. Duster. Negro American Biographies and Autobiographies series, edited by John Hope Franklin. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  2. Royster, Jacqueline Jones, ed. (1997) Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 Bedford Books, Boston, MA. [This work contains a copy of Wells' publication "A Red Record", and other pamphlets.]
  3. Thompson, Mildred I. (1990) Ida B. Wells-Barnett: An Exploratory Study of a Black Woman, 1893-1930. Carlson Pub., Brooklyn, N.Y.
  4. Townes, Emilie M. (1993) Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope Carlson Pub., Brooklyn, N.Y.
  5. http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/aap/idawells.html

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