Ida B. Wells Challenges Segregated Railroad Cars in Tennessee
Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The civil rights trailblazers we have profiled in this series have played an important role in bending this arc. In their actions, they have demonstrated the importance of the instructions from the late United States Representative John Lewis, another Black American hero: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something.” Our final profile is of Ida B. Wells, whose challenge to segregated railroad cars in Tennessee led to a lifetime of work on behalf of civil rights.
From the late 18th to the early 19th Century, southern states enacted Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise Black Americans and remove the political and economic gains they made following the Civil War. Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in public facilities and institutionalized economic, educational, and social disadvantages for Black Americans living in the South.
Despite the extreme oppression of these laws, Black Americans risked their lives and safety to oppose the laws and stepped forward as leaders in attempting to overturn them. One such leader was Ida B. Wells, a 20-year old Fisk graduate and school teacher from Memphis, Tennessee, who became a prominent activist against Jim Crow laws after refusing to leave a first-class train car designated for white people only.
On May 4, 1884, Wells boarded a train in Woodstock, Tennessee for the 10-mile ride to Memphis. When she sat in a car designated for white passengers only, the conductor forcibly removed her and told her she had to sit elsewhere. For her refusal, Wells was forced to leave the train after it had traveled only 400 yards.
Wells decided to sue the railroad company for violating a Tennessee law that required railroads to offer equal accommodations to Black passengers. She hired Thomas Frank Cassels, Memphis’s first Black lawyer and a former member of the Tennessee House, and James Greer, a white attorney who worked with Cassels. At trial, Wells was successful, and the court awarded her $500. She later lost on appeal. In ruling against her, the Tennessee Supreme Court criticized Wells and cast suspicions on her intentions. “We think it is evident that the purpose of [Wells] was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride,” the Court wrote.
Wells had hoped that her suit would set a precedent that would overturn other unjust laws, but 12 years later in Plessy v. Ferguson, another case involving segregated train cars, the Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of separate but equal. Yet Wells persisted. She turned her anger at this injustice into a devotion to fight Jim Crow laws across the United States. In 1889, Wells became co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, an African American newspaper that rallied against the loss of rights for Black people in Tennessee. Wells used her position to challenge school segregation, sexual harassment, and lynching. She also co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where her activities laid the groundwork for the organization’s anti-lynching campaign. Through her activism, journalism, and teachings, Wells battled racism, sexism, and violence throughout the United States, and became a crucial leader in the Civil Rights Movement. We honor the persistence of Ms. Ida B. Wells.
As we complete this series, we ask you to reflect on the importance of additional advice from Representative Lewis: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble."
--Thanks to Katerina Pluhachek Garcia and Francesca Rogo for their work on this report.