This is part of a series recognizing the lives of suffragists in honor of the anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment (August 1920). These aren’t meant to be comprehensive, and I’m most certainly not an authority on the lives of any of these women, but if you want to learn more, I encourage you to read a book written by someone who is.
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862. After the Civil War her parents strove to provide themselves and their children with an education, and Wells and her siblings were able to attend school. Unfortunately, both of Wells’ parents and a sibling died in a Yellow Fever epidemic when Wells was a teenager, and she took over the care of her five surviving siblings. She obtained a job as a teacher, and eventually moved to Memphis, where she continued teaching.
Wells’ life in activism began when she was asked to give up her seat on a train to a white person. When she refused, the train employee attempted to drag her from her seat, so she bit his hand and latched on. He summoned two other men and they removed Wells from the train, to the applause of the white passengers.
Wells successfully sued the rail company, but the ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court of Tennessee. However, the lawsuit generated a great deal of interest and instigated Wells’ career in journalism. Her criticism of the conditions in Memphis’ segregated schools led to her dismissal from her teaching job by the School Board. When three black businessmen were lynched, essentially because they were competing with a white-owned business, Wells used her platform as a writer to become an anti-lynching activist. Her newspaper office was torched and she moved to Chicago in fear of her life.
In 1913 Wells founded the first African-American women’s suffrage club in Chicago and marched in the suffrage parade in Washington. Black women were required to march separately from white women, evidently to spare the delicate feelings of Southern suffragists, some of whom wanted only white women to be enfranchised, but true to form, Wells refused to be segregated, and marched with the rest of the delegation from Illinois.
Wells continued her activism in Chicago, and ran for the Illinois state legislature one year before her death.