The fight against injustice: Remembering Ida B. Wells during Black History Month |

The fight against injustice: Remembering Ida B. Wells during Black History Month

By Sage Sappenfield and Julia Olsen
Special to the Daily
Portrait of Ida B. Wells, ca. 1893.
Public Domain photo

February is Black History Month, and to mark the occasion, students in Sophia Sopuch’s eighth grade English classes at Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy studied Ida B. Wells and wrote essays on the pioneering journalist who, according to a New York Times profile, was the most famous black woman in the United States during her lifetime. “This year, we studied her in order to make a connection to the book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ which they read at the beginning of the school year,” Sopuch said of the assignment. “She was an anti-lynching activist, who would attend lynchings first-hand and use data to write her newspaper articles.” To highlight their work, the Vail Daily is publishing essays by Sage Sappenfield and Julia Olsen.

Sage Sappenfield’s essay

Ida B. Wells famously said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” She lived her successful and influential life following this quote and strived to show all American citizens the truth about segregation. Wells spent her life fighting sexism, violence, and racism; she also used her intelligence and experiences to become a journalist. Though she received many threats, she continued to face the dangers of standing up to racism in the United States and pursue her passion for protecting African American rights and treatment.

Ida B. Wells lived a very difficult childhood. Her parents passed when she was only 16 and she had to become a school teacher at a very young age in order to support her many young siblings. However, these struggles didn’t cause Wells to give up on her beliefs, she worked through them and stood up for what was right. Ida B. Wells put others’ safety and security in front of her own and that is why she is remembered as a hero, not only to African Americans but to every race and culture around the world. 

Sage Sappenfield is an eighth grade student at the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy.
Special to the Daily

Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862. She was born into slavery during the Civil War. As the war ended, her parents became very involved in politics and believed in the importance of a strong education. In 1878, Wells went to visit her grandmother. While she was there she was informed that a yellow fever epidemic had hit her hometown, the disease had taken both of Wells’ parents and her infant brother. The National Women’s History Museum says that Wells was forced to move her family of five younger siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, where she “continued to work various jobs as an educator.” These experiences and tough life decisions during Wells’ childhood are what inspired her passion for helping others and standing up for what she knows is right. Wells wanted the best possible life for her younger siblings so she began to stand up for her beliefs as she worked towards equality. 

In 1884, Wells was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man. When she forcefully refused, he ordered her into the “colored person” car, even though she had bought a first-class ticket. Despite the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination of race, creed, or color, in theaters, hotels, transports, and other public accommodations, many railroad companies went against this act and racially segregated their passengers.

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According to journalist Becky Little, “Ida B. Wells filed a lawsuit against the railroad company for unfair treatment,” she won the case and five hundred dollars in her local court, but the decision was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court of Tennessee. Wells fought for the equality of others even though she knew it could cause consequences for herself. She showed tremendous bravery when she sued the railroad company because African Americans were often turned down in court for their race.

In 1892, three of Wells’ close friends were lynched; Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart. These men were the owners of People’s Grocery Company, and their small grocery store had taken away customers from a nearby competing white-owned business. A group of angry white men thought they would “eliminate” the competition so they attacked the store. The three men fought back, shooting, but not killing, one of the attackers. The owners of People’s Grocery Company were arrested, but a lynch-mob broke into the jail, dragged the men away from town, and brutally murdered all three.

The racial segregation that Wells faced during these events inspired her to share others’ experiences along with her own through local newspapers and any other resources she could find. This began her career in journalism, which led to the creation of many of her own newspapers, and eventually, organizations that more efficiently stood up for segregation.  

Using her background in education, and her experiences with racial segregation, Wells became a journalist and began to write about African American rights and injustices, such as lynching. According to Duke University, “many papers wanted to hear about the experiences of the 25-year-old school teacher who stood up against white supremacy.” Wells investigated many lynching cases throughout Memphis and published her findings in pamphlets and local newspapers. As she began to expose the truth about unfair lynchings and the treatment of colored people, Wells received multiple threats from enraged white locals. After a few months, the threats became so bad Wells was forced to move to Chicago, Illinois. 

In 1893, Wells joined other African American leaders throughout Chicago in calling for the boycott of the World’s Columbian Exposition. According to NWHM, “The boycotters accused the exposition committee of locking out African Americans and negatively portraying the black community,” which caused unneeded actions of segregation. Also during her time in Chicago, Wells helped develop numerous African American treatment reform organizations, such as co-founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One of Wells’ greatest accomplishments in Chicago happened alongside Jane Addams when they successfully blocked the establishment of segregated schools throughout the city. The contributions Wells had to the city of Chicago led to her name becoming well known throughout the country and inspired many people with similar beliefs to stand up for racial equality.

In 1895, Wells met Ferdinand Barnett, a widowed lawyer, and journalist who supported women’s suffrage and racial discrimination. She married him that year and changed her last name to the hyphenated “Wells-Barnett,” which according to NWHM was a very unique move at the time because it was a social norm for women to drop their last name entirely. The couple later had four children. Wells was able to balance motherhood with her journalism and activism, which once again proves how she put the welfare of others first and made a huge impact on our country.

Ida B. Wells is part of the reason why so many African American families throughout the United States have gotten to watch their children grow up in a world free of racial injustices. In her lifetime, Wells accomplished more than most people ever could. She worked through childhood struggles, showed courage when she stood up against powerful white men in court, used her writing skills to spread her research, and most of all, stood up for what she knew was right.

Though her actions were well ahead of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s, Wells paved the way for the success of many other black activists. She spent her life working to ensure a feeling of security and safety for the next generations of African Americans, which is why she is remembered as a hero by so many. Though Wells is unable to see what an impact she has had on our nation, we can continue her legacy by celebrating Black History Month and making sure to never allow any type of segregation to happen again. We as individuals can also continue to stand up for what we know is right, just like Ida B. Wells once said, “one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

Julia Olsen’s essay

There have been many inspirational women who have changed our history, and we still follow in their footsteps today. An example of a strong and independent woman, who stood up for what she believes in, is Ida B. Wells. Wells was a great leader and inspired many people. Ida B. Wells was a female black activist and American Journalist who led an anti-lynching campaign throughout the United States in the 1890s. Ida B. Wells once said, “One had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.” Her whole life she was striving to make a difference, change how black people were treated, and create justice for all American citizens.

Julia Olsen and Sophia Sopuch, her English teacher at Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy.

Ida B. Wells was born on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She was the first of eight children. Born into slavery, she grew up with constant, brutally hard work, and poor education. She started teaching in 1876 when she was only 14 years old. She was able to do this by making herself look older and passing the age test to make money for her family. Two years later, a tragedy struck her family when both her parents and one of her sibling’s lives were taken from the yellow fever epidemic, also known as the American Plague. Ida B. Wells got very lucky. She and six of her other siblings were visiting their grandma when the yellow plague struck her town. After this horrible occurrence, they were forced to move to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1884. She continued to teach there, but, during the summer, attended classes at Fisk University in Nashville. 

During 1884, Ida B. Wells was first inspired to change the way black people were treated. The conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad forcefully removed her to the smoking car, also known as the Jim Crow car, just so a white man would have a seat. After this incident, Wells immediately got an attorney, she sued the railroads and won her case. Although she did win her case it eventually got overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. 

Then, in 1892, another tragedy occurred and after this, her life was never the same. Three of her friends were lynched in 1892 Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart. They owned a grocery store called People’s Grocery Company. A group of angry white men, who owned a grocery store nearby, thought they would eliminate the competition. They went to the grocery store and attacked, one of the owners had a gun so he tried to fight back and shot one of the attackers. The owners of People’s Grocery Company were arrested because one of the white men was shot. But that didn’t stop a lynch mob from breaking into the jail, taking the owners out, and brutally killing them. 

After these events, Wells not only continued to journalize the terrible things that were happening but also exposed people who had found reasons to lynch black men. Wells also helped create organizations for black people to protect themselves. Another contribution she and her friend, Jane Addams, was to block the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago. Ida was also one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also continued to be an anti-lynching crusader, a woman’s rights activist, and a teacher who spoke out on racial issues. Though Wells was very busy, she was passionate and confident about what she did.

Ida B. Wells went through good times and bad times, but she kept persevering to make a difference in the world. Wells once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”  Her whole life she made other lives better by showing the truth and changing the way black people were treated. On March 25, 1931, Ida B. Wells passed away but she lives on with a reputation that guides us still today and will never be forgotten.

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