Five Facts You Didn’t Know about the Inspiring Ida B. Wells

July 16, 2015

Wells portraitHappy 153rd birthday of teacher, journalist, civil-rights activist, Republican, and gun advocate Ida B. Wells!

Google has a “Doodle” today (see below) in honor of this remarkable and courageous woman.  You may know she was born a slave before the Civil War and helped found the NAACP in 1909, but here are five interesting things you may not have heard:

1.  Ida Wells was the original Rosa Parks.

She refused to move to the back of the train, “71 years before the activist Rosa Parks showed similar resistance on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus.”

Iowa State University:

In September 1883, while commuting by train, Wells was asked to leave the “ladies’ car” and move to the smoking car, where all African Americans were expected to sit.


She had purchased a first-class ticket, and was seated in the ladies car when the conductor ordered her to sit in the Jim Crow (i.e. black) section, which did not offer first-class accommodations.

Duke University:

Wells wrote in her autobiography:

I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in 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 baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.

. . . When Wells returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an attorney to sue the railroad. She won her case in the local circuit courts, but the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and it reversed the lower court’s ruling. This was the first of many struggles Wells engaged, and from that moment forward, she worked tirelessly and fearlessly to overturn injustices against women and people of color.

2.  Miss Wells was pro-gun.

National Review:

In her harrowing 1892 treatise on the horrors of lynching in the post-bellum American South, the journalist, suffragist, and civil-rights champion Ida B. Wells established for her readers the value of bearing arms. “Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year,” Wells recorded, “the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves.” She went on to proffer some advice: “The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches, and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”

3.  Ida’s surprising dating philosophy

According to Wikipedia, in her diaries,

Before she was married, Wells admitted that she would only date men that she had “little romantic interest in,” because she didn’t want romance to be the center of the relationship. Instead she wanted it to be more about how she and her partner interacted mentally rather than physically.

After she was married, she hyphenated: Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand Barnett.[23] She was one of the first married American women to keep her own last name as well as taking her husband’s.

4.  Mrs. Wells-Barnett was an energetic Republican activist.

Iowa State University:

Participating in the founding of such organizations as the National Association of Colored Women (1896), the Afro-American Council (1898), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1910), Wells-Barnett remained active in few.  She personally founded the Ida B. Wells Women’s Club in 1893; the Negro Fellowship League, a kind of settlement house for black men, in 1910; and the Alpha Suffrage Club in 1913. In addition, from 1913 to 1916, Wells-Barnett served as an adult probation officer in Chicago. Always busy, she was active in the Republican Party and, in the three years before her death, began her autobiography and ran for the state senate.

5.  She never gave up.

According to Wikipedia,

Wells spent the last thirty years of her life in Chicago working on urban reform. She also raised her family and worked on her autobiography. After her retirement, Wells wrote her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928).

She never finished it; the book ends in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a word. Wells died of uremia (kidney failure) in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68.

Wells Doodle

Read more about Ida B. Wells from

3 Responses to “Five Facts You Didn’t Know about the Inspiring Ida B. Wells”

  1. Will S. Says:

    So, she was an early feminist, keeping her own (father’s) last name, as well as taking on her husband’s. I’ve always found that amusing, that feminists want to hold on to their own patriarchal name, as well as adopting the patriarchal name of their husbands. ;)

    Only dated men she had little romantic interest in? Seems absurd; if you’re not going to find a mate through betrothal / arranged marriage / non-Western ways, then what’s wrong with some romance? Yes, making romance the end-all, be-all is an error, and often disastrous, but surely neglecting it is just as big an error – if there’s no passion, no spark, and one simply marries for security, and self-interest, or ideological reasons (‘mentally’ being what she emphasized, so obviously she meant someone of similar beliefs), that can also be a recipe for disaster.

    Biting the man who tried to remove her only perpetuates stereotypes; civilized people do not normally bite others. Suing in court for selling a first-class ticket but not allowing one to sit in the first-class area was a smarter move; perhaps if she hadn’t engaged in biting, she might have won the appeal as well as the lower court ruling. We’ll never know, of course, but certainly she’d have come out looking better.

    Ah well. Her advocacy of black families having firearms just like white ones makes sense in the American context, of everyone being armed.

    • “Yes, making romance the end-all, be-all is an error, and often disastrous, but surely neglecting it is just as big an error – if there’s no passion, no spark, and one simply marries for security, and self-interest, or ideological reasons (‘mentally’ being what she emphasized, so obviously she meant someone of similar beliefs), that can also be a recipe for disaster.”

      Certainly her approach is counterintuitive, but I’m inclined to give her at least some credit. In the context of her intellectual work (writing for and editing newspapers, publishing pamphlets, making the case that lynching wasn’t used as fair punishment for crimes committed), I took “how she and her partner interacted mentally” to refer to intellectual exchange. If she was bright and interested in ideas, I can imagine that she might be bored and otherwise a poor fit with a man with whom she couldn’t have conversations about the things that most interested her. I think that’s at least as much a statement about intelligence as it is about ideology.

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