#InContext: Ida B. Wells


Ida B. Wells, an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement, devoted her life to shining light on the darkness of injustice. In 1862, Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The Emancipation Proclamation officially freed slaves in the South about six months later, and Wells devoted her life to ensuring that minorities could actually enjoy that freedom.

Wells suffered a tragic loss at the age of 16 when a yellow fever epidemic killed her parents and one of her brothers. The oldest of the remaining five children, Wells rejected the plans of family and friends to divide her siblings up. Instead, she began working as a teacher to support them, and relegated the continuation of her own education to the breaks she had between school terms.

One fateful train ride in 1884 inspired Wells to begin writing about racial issues. After purchasing a first-class ticket for the train to her school, a conductor commanded her to move to the African-American car. Wells refused to move, asserting her rightful purchase of a first-class ticket. Wells was forcefully removed from the train, but not without a fight. During the altercation, which required the involvement of multiple train crew members, she bit one of the men on the hand.

This incident propelled Wells to actively speak out against racial injustice. Wells began writing about racial injustice in the The Living Way newspaper. She wrote about disenfranchisement of and violence against blacks, and the lack of resources for black schools. She later became co-owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Her commitment to shed light on racial injustice eventually cost Wells her job as a teacher.

In 1892, a white mob lynched Thomas Moss, a friend of Wells, and two other individuals. The mob started because the grocery store that Moss owned had begun competing with a white-owned grocery store. Incensed, Wells wrote articles encouraging blacks to leave Memphis and decrying the evils of lynching. As a result, another white mob destroyed her newspaper office, warning Wells never to return to Memphis.

Nevertheless, Wells continued her efforts to expose the injustice and inhumanity of lynching. It was commonly believed that lynch mobs were based on heinous crimes, such as accusations of rape and murder. Through her investigation, Wells discovered instead that black people were lynched for absurdly trivial reasons such as allegedly not paying debts, competing economically with whites, or simply not “appearing to give way” to whites. Wells published a book, A Red Record (1895), detailing her findings. Advertisements for her lectures about the abhorrent practice of lynching proclaimed Wells’ quote:

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

She lived out this belief, even when it threatened her life, career, and well-being.

Wells took a stand against inequality and the degrading treatment of individuals. At the Human Trafficking Institute, we continue her legacy of shedding light on the injustice and inhumanity of modern-day slavery. Decimating human trafficking at its source requires that human traffickers no longer be allowed to hide under the protection of darkness.

You Might Also Like

Published by

Cory Sagduyu

Cory Sagduyu

Cory is a third-year law student at the University of Virginia School of Law. During law school, she interned at the Justice Department’s Criminal Section working on prosecution of official misconduct, hate crimes, and human trafficking. She helped victims of domestic violence and human trafficking gain legal status at Ayuda, Human Rights First, and the Equal Justice Center. At the University of Virginia, she directs the Migrant Farmworker Project, which provides legal assistance to potential victims of labor trafficking. Her ideal legal job would involve prosecution of human traffickers, which could include direct involvement in prosecutions, providing trainings on human trafficking, and increasing general awareness of human trafficking through written products and events.