Born a slave in 1862, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the oldest daughter of James and Lizzie Wells. The Wells family, as well as the rest of the nation's slaves, were freed about six months after Ida's birth, thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation. However, living in Mississippi as African Americans, they faced racial prejudices and were restricted by discriminatory rules and practices.
Wells-Barnett's father served on the first board of trustees for Rust College and made education a priority for his seven children. It was there that Wells-Barnett received her early schooling, but she had to drop out at the age of 16, when tragedy struck her family. Both of her parents and one of her siblings died in a yellow fever outbreak, leaving Wells-Barnett to care for her other siblings. Ever resourceful, she convinced a nearby country school administrator that she was 18, and landed a job as a teacher.
On one fateful train ride from Memphis to Nashville, in May 1884, Wells-Barnett reached a personal turning point. Having bought a first-class train ticket to Nashville, she was outraged when the train crew ordered her to move to the car for African Americans, and refused on principle. She was then forcibly removed from the train. Wells-Barnett sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement in a circuit court case. But that decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
This injustice led Wells-Barnett to pick up a pen to write about issues of race and politics in the South. Using the moniker "Iola," a number of her articles were published in black newspapers and periodicals. Wells-Barnett eventually became an owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and, later, the Free Speech.
While working as a journalist and publisher, Wells-Barnett also held a position as a teacher in a segregated public school in Memphis. She became a vocal critic of the condition...