A tireless champion of her people, Ida B. Wells was the first of eight children born to Jim and Elizabeth Wells in Mississippi in 1862, six months before chattel slavery was ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Her parents, who had been slaves, were able to support their children because Elizabeth was an excellent cook and Jim a skilled carpenter. But when Ida was only 16, her parents and youngest sibling died of Yellow Fever during an epidemic. In keeping with the strength and fortitude she demonstrated throughout her remarkable life, Ida took responsibility for raising her six younger siblings with her grandmother’s help. Educated at nearby Rust College, a school run by white missionaries, Ida was forced to drop out; she got a full-time teaching job by lying about her age, and spent weekends washing, ironing and cooking for her large family.
Wells eventually moved to Memphis, Tenn., where she taught school in a small town called Woodstock and continued her education by attending Fisk University and Lemoyne Institute during the summers.
Ida’s career as a writer was sparked by an incident that occurred in 1884, while riding a train back to her job in Woodstock. Wells was asked by the conductor to move from her seat in the ladies' car into the smoking car.
"I refused," she later wrote, describing how the conductor tried to drag her out of the seat: "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 baggage man and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out."