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Nonsmoker and Post-Reconstruction Activist Ida Wells (1862-1931)
Kathleen McFadden

Celebrating Black History Month

Rosa Parks wasn###t the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat on public transportation. In May 1884, Ida Wells bought a first-class ticket on a Tennessee train to travel to her teaching job at a rural school, something she had done many times before. But changes were afoot in the state. Responding to white pressure, the railroad had passed ###Separate but Equal### rules that restricted black people to travel in the smoking car. On that day in May, the train###s conductor told Ida she had to move to the smoking coach. She refused, and several conductors tried to physically force her from the first-class coach. Ida left the train and filed a discrimination lawsuit against the railroad. She won in the lower court, but her victory was overturned by the Tennessee State Supreme Court in 1887. In protest, Ida wrote a series of articles about her case that were printed in a church newspaper and brought her to the attention of the editors at a small black newspaper in Memphis who offered her a job. She worked at the paper as a part-time editor (she also taught in the black public schools), and her op-ed pieces that condemned the state###s post-Reconstruction segregation laws were reprinted in black newspapers throughout the United States. An 1892 lynching in Memphis (three black businessmen had opened a grocery store across from a white-owned grocery store) helped catapult Ida to national prominence. The editorials she wrote about the lynching accused white officials of tolerating and covering up the violence directed at the city###s blacks and urged her readers to leave Memphis. In response, a white mob attacked and destroyed the newspaper office. The mob planned to whip Ida to death, but she fortunately was not there. Ida moved to New York where she worked as a correspondent for several black newspapers and became a lynching expert, putting herself in considerable peril every time she pursued a story. She single-handedly exposed lynchings for what they were: terror tactics and not a reluctantly imposed but necessary punishment to protect the white population. Her investigative research forced the federal government to take action to protect the lives and the rights of Southern blacks. Ida was also active in women###s rights, organizing the first black women###s suffrage organization, and she established the first kindergarten for black children in Chicago. Ida was born on July 16, 1862 and died in 1931.

by Kathleen McFadden,