Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, just before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father James Wells was a carpenter and her mother was Elizabeth "Lizzie" Warrenton Wells. Both parents were slaves until freed at the end of the Civil War.
Ida’s father James was a master at carpentry and known as a race man. He was also very interested in politics, but he never took office. Her mother Elizabeth was a cook for the Bolling household before she was torn apart from the family. She was a religious woman who was very strict with her children, for their best interests. Wells' parents took their children's education very seriously. They wanted their children to take advantage of having the opportunity to be educated and attend school.
Wells attended the Freedmen's School Shaw University, now Rust College in Holly Springs. She was expelled from Rust College for her rebellious behavior and temper after confronting the President of the college. During her time at college, on a visit to her grandmother in Mississippi Valley, she received word that her hometown of Holly Springs had been hit by the Yellow Fever epidemic. When she was 16, both Wells' parents and her 10-month old brother, Stanley, died of yellow fever during an epidemic that swept through the South.
At a meeting following the funeral, friends and relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children would be sent to various foster homes. Wells was devastated by the idea and, to keep the family together, dropped out of high school and found employment as a teacher in a black school. She was determined to keep her family together, even under the difficult circumstances. Her grandmother, Peggy Wells, along with other friends and relatives as well, stayed with the children during the week while she was away to teach; without this help she would have not been able to provide for the family. She used teaching as a way to support herself and her family, however she didn’t have a passion for it. She thought it was unfair that white teachers were making $80 a month when she was only making $30. This had caused her to find an interest in racial politics and improving education of blacks.
In 1883, Wells moved to Memphis. There she got a teaching job, and during her summer vacations she attended summer sessions at Fisk University in Nashville, whose graduates were well respected in the black community. She also attended LeMoyne Institute. Wells held strong political opinions and she upset many people with 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 a revenge."
On May 4, 1884, a Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company train conductor ordered Wells to give up her seat on the train and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. At the time, the Supreme Court had just struck down, in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Several railroad companies were able to continue legal racial segregation of their passengers.
Wells protested and refused to give up her seat, 71 years before Rosa Parks. The conductor and two other men dragged Wells out of the car. When she returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an African American attorney to sue the railroad. Wells became a public figure in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article, for "The Living Way," a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train.
When her lawyer was paid off by the railroad, she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884 when the local circuit court granted her a $500 settlement. The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling in 1885, concluding that, "We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error 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." Wells was ordered to pay court costs.
While teaching elementary school, Wells was offered an editorial position for the Evening Star. She also wrote weekly articles for The Living Way weekly newspaper under the pen name "Iola.
In March 1891, racial tensions were rising in Memphis. Violence was becoming the norm, especially with the appearance of the KKK. A grocery store, the People's Grocery Company, owned by three black men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, was perceived as taking away a substantial amount of business from a white-owned grocery store that was across the street. One night, while Wells was out of town in Natchez, MS selling newspaper subscriptions, an attack broke out when a white mob invaded the grocery store, which ended in three white men being shot and injured. Moss, McDowell, and Stewart, who were Wells' friends, were jailed. A large lynch mob stormed the jail cells and killed them.
After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote an article in the Free Speech urging blacks to leave Memphis: "There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons." Wells emphasized the public spectacle of the lynching. Over 6,000 blacks did leave; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. Being personally threatened with violence, Wells wrote in her autobiography that she bought a pistol: "They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth."
The murder of her friends sparked Wells' interest in researching the real reason behind lynching. She began investigative journalism about lynching, looking at the charges given as reasons to lynch black men. She wrote an article that implied that liaisons between black men and white women were consensual. While she was away in Philadelphia, The Free Speech was destroyed on May 27, 1892, three months after the murders of Moss, Stewart, and McDowell.
She went from Philadelphia to New York City. The New York Age printed her articles as she continued her fight against lynching. Her speaking abilities were tested for the first time when she was asked to speak in front of many important African American women of the time.
As she spoke about the lynchings of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart, she began to cry. Wells became the head of the Anti-Lynching Crusade, later moving to Chicago to continue her work.
She was known as one of the most influential and inspiring black leaders of the time, along with Fredrick Douglas. Wells and other black leaders, among them Frederick Douglass, organized a boycott of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn and Ferdinand L. Barnett wrote sections of a pamphlet to be distributed during the exposition. Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition detailed the progress of blacks since their arrival in America and the workings of Southern lynchings. She later reported to Albion W. Tourgée that copies of the pamphlet had been distributed to over 20,000 people at the fair. After the World's Fair in Chicago, Wells decided to stay in the city instead of returning to New York City and in 1893 took work with the Chicago Conservator, oldest African American newspaper paper in the city.
Also in 1893, Wells contemplated a libel suit against two black Memphis attorneys. She again turned to Tourgée, who had trained and practiced as a lawyer and judge, for possible free legal help. Deeply in debt, Tourgée could not afford to do the work, but he asked his friend Ferdinand L. Barnett if he could. Barnett accepted the pro bono job. Ferdinand was born in Alabama. Along with being a lawyer, he was the editor of the "Chicago Conservator" in 1878. The first time Ida met Ferdinand was at a meeting of the Ida B. Wells Club, where Ferdinand was president of the club. Ferdinand was an assistant state attorney for 14 years. In 1895, he and Wells were married. She set an early precedent as being one of the first married American women to keep her own last name with her husband's. This was very unusual for that time.
The two had four children: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda. In a chapter of her autobiography titled "A Divided Duty", she explains the difficulty she had splitting her time between her family and her job. Wells continued to work after the birth of her first child, traveling and bringing him along with her. Although she tried to balance the two worlds, she was not as active and, as Susan B. Anthony said, Wells "was distracted". She returned home after having her second child because she could no longer balance her job with her family.
She received much support from other prolific social activists and her fellow clubwomen. In his response to her article in the Free Speech, Frederick Douglass expressed approval of Wells-Barnett's literature: "You have done your people and mine a service…What a revelation of existing conditions your writing has been for me" (Freedman, 1994). Wells- Barnett took her campaign into Europe with the help of many supporters. In 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women, and also founded the National Afro-American Council, which later became the NAACP. Wells formed the Women's Era Club, the first civic organization for African-American women. This club later became the Ida B. Wells Club, in honor of its founder.
In 1899, Wells was struggling to manage a home life and a career life, but she was still a fierce competitor in the anti-lynching circle. This was illustrated when The National Association of Colored Women's club met that year in Chicago. To Wells' surprise, she was not invited to take part in the festivities. When she confronted the president of the club, Mrs. Terrell, Wells was told that Terrell had received letters from the women of Chicago that if Wells were to take part in the club, they would no longer aid the association. However, Wells later came to find out that the real reason she had not been invited was because Mrs. Terrell's selfish intentions. Mrs. Terrell had been president of the association 23years' running and wanted to be elected a third time. Mrs.Terrell thought the only way of doing that was to keep Wells out of the picture.
After traveling through the British Isles and the United States teaching and giving speeches to bring awareness to the lynching problems in America, Wells settled in Chicago and worked to improve conditions for the rapidly growing African American population there. The rapid increase of African Americans into the population led to racial tensions much like those in the South. There were also tensions between the African American population and the immigrants from Europe, who were now in competition for jobs. Wells spent the latter thirty years of her life working on urban reform in Chicago. While there, she also raised her family and worked on her autobiography. After her retirement Wells wrote her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928). The book, however, was never finished; in fact, it ends in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a word. She died of uremia in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of sixty-eight.