Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, and an early leader in the civil rights movement. Ida Bell Wells, the oldest daughter of James and Elizabeth Wells, was born a slave on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The Wells family was decreed free with the other slaves of the Confederate states by the Union, about six months after Ida’s birth. Living in Mississippi as African Americans, they still faced racial prejudices and were restricted by discriminatory rules and practices of that time. Her father, James, was involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society and helped start Shaw University, now known as Rust College, a school for the newly freed slaves and served on the first board of trustees.
On a train ride from Memphis to Nashville, in May 1884, Wells had her “aha moment.” She had bought a first-class train ticket to Nashville and was outraged when the train crew ordered her to move to the car for African Americans. Wells refused on principle and as she was forcibly removed from the train, she bit one of the men on the hand. Wells sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement in a circuit court case. The Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the decision. This is what sparked the writer and civil rights leader in Wells and she immediately began her long, and at times dangerous, writing and social and political activist career.
In 1898, she married Ferdinand Barnett and was thereafter known as Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Though Wells-Barnett was considered a founding member of the NAACP, she later cut ties with the organization stating she felt the organization, in its infancy at the time she left—lacked action-based initiatives. Wells-Barnett died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931, at the age of 69, in Chicago, Illinois. She left behind an impressive and extensive legacy of social and political heroism. With her writings, speeches and protests, Wells-Barnett fought against prejudice, no matter what potential dangers she faced. She once said, “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”