Preface: On NPR this morning, I heard a news story about one of the many series of protests of the police killings of black men across the United States, two just this week alone. Increasingly, and indeed in one of the sound clips NPR played, these killings of unarmed black men are increasingly portrayed as the lynchings of the 21st century; racist social control given a vector for expression and protection of white supremacy through violence. There is some truth to this assertion.
This all turned my mind to the historical background the story obliquely referenced, and its roots in the post-Civil War America of the soft Johnsonian readmission of the Confederate oligarchy back into the Union and power, the more stringent Radical Reconstruction that followed, and the subsequent ‘Reconstruction of White Supremacy’ and creation of Jim Crow that carried one hundred years later, into the Civil Rights era.
With that considered, I’ll be undertaking a new project to highlight some points of this period that I’ve read on, and that may be of some interest and use for those following along. The first is to highlight a personal hero of mine, Ida B. Wells. Wells was a tireless crusader for the dignity and human rights of not just African-Americans, but also women. She endured violence, lost friends to murder, found herself sidelined and ignored– only to refuse to bend or break, and instead consistently found new ways to stand to and to fight. This first post will begin her story, and the first roots of her resistance.
Ida Wells was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The state of her birth had stood in rebellion to the Federal Government for about a year and a half at this point, and was a formal member of the Confederate States of America. Six days after her birth, the CSA would celebrate the first anniversary of its initial major victory against the Union– the first Battle of Bull Run. That victory had emboldened the rebel cause, and suggested that their efforts to defend their ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery against any threat of being outlawed, now and forever. Certainly, Wells’ parents Jim and Elizabeth would have had little hope at this stage that they, or their newborn daughter might someday be liberated from chains.
In her autobiography, Wells recounts that her father was the son of his master and one of his slaves, Peggy, and was leased out as an apprentice to ‘old man Bolling,’ building contractor. Her mother was a cook for Bolling. When the war came to a close, and the Wells’ were emancipated by law, Bolling offered to keep Jim on– if he would use his newly gained vote to support Democratic (read: former Confederate) candidates. Jim declined, and returned from the polls to find himself locked out of the shop. Undeterred, he bought a new set of tools and set up shop for himself to support Elizabeth and Ida under his own aegis.
Wells’ parents did not often speak of their days as slaves, though she recounted the one incident she remembered from her childhood:
“The only thing I remember about my father’s references to slave days was when his mother came to town on one of her annual visits (after slavery). She and her husband owned and tilled many acres of land and every fall brought their cotton and corn to market. She also brought us many souveniers from hog-killing time. On one such occaison she told us about ‘Miss Polly’, her former mistress, and said ‘Jim, Miss Polly wants you to come and bring the children. She wants to see them.’
‘Mother,’ said he, ‘I never want to see that old woman as long as I live. I’ll never forget how she had you stripped and whipped the day after the old man died. and I am never going to see her. I guess it is all right for you to take care of her and forgive her for what she did to you, but she could have starved to death if I had my say-so. She certainly would have if it hadn’t been for you.‘” (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 1970, pp. 9-10)
While Ida Wells attended school in Holly Springs, she heard tales of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan in the newspapers and in hushed tones. Her father had become a trustee of Shaw University (modern day Rust College), and noted how her mother would constantly pace the floor at night when her father was out on school business or at a political meeting. Wells did not understand what the Klan was about, simply that they “meant something fearful.” She concludes that there were no Klan attacks or riots in Holly Springs while the family lived there, but there were plenty elsewhere in the state.
The year 1878 brought major change for Wells. An epidemic of Yellow Fever swept through the area that summer. Wells was visiting her grandmother when the disease struck her family home. She recounts how three horsemen arrived at her grandmother’s door, bearing her a note that indicated that “Jim and Lizzie Wells have both died of the fever. They died within twenty-four hours of each other. The children are all at home and the Howard Association has put a woman there to take care of them. Send word to Ida” (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 1970, pp. 11). Wells wished to rush home immediately, but relatives all argued to stay out of the stricken town and family home until the threat of Yellow Fever had passed. Wells would have none of it– and took the next train home, synchronous with a letter she had written to her siblings.
Wells’ return to Holly Springs was on a freight train, and she ended up riding in a caboose draped in black in memory of two conductors who had fallen victims to the Fever. She noted to the new conductor that her reason for returning was similar to his– for him, someone had to do it; for her, she was now the “…eldest of seven living children. There’s nobody but me to look after them now. Don’t you think I should do my duty too?” (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 1970, pp. 11).
In order to provide for her siblings, Wells took on work as a teacher, first in Mississippi, and by 1883 she had moved with the whole clan to Memphis Tennessee, where her aunt Belle would tend to the youngest two girls while Wells worked in Shelby County (University of Chicago Library, 2009). Wells began attending further classes herself, in order to take an examination to be certified as a schoolteacher for the city– a proposition that would pay better than the lesser position she held.
That same year– 1883– had seen the gutting of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by the Supreme Court (following United States v. Stanley, United States v. Ryan, United States v. Nichols, United States v. Singleton, and Robinson et ux. v. Memphis & Charleston R.R. Co.) that had previously guaranteed equal treatment of blacks in public accommodation, transportation, and prevented the prohibition of African-Americans from serving on juries. Immediately, former Confederate states began re-instituting social controls relegating black people to a abject subservience– laws and regulations that were in essence a return of the Black Codes in place from 1866-7, themselves copies of the old antebellum Slave Codes, just replacing the term “slave” with terminology more innocuous. These new Black Codes would in later years take on a name more familiar to modern audiences: Jim Crow.
One such law that was passed in Tennessee restricted African-Americans to the smoking car in trains. These cars were noted for being rougher, more rowdy– and naturally– smoke-choked and atmospherically unpleasant. In her commutes from her aunt’s farm and the school she attended, Wells eschewed the smoking cars, in preference for the Ladies’ Car on the train. On a 4 May 1884 trip, Wells’ preference for the Ladies’ Car would have seismic consequences for the rest of her life. On that instance, the conductor making his rounds to collect tickets refused to punch it in the ladies’ car, insisting instead that she move to the smoking car. Wells refused. She’d paid for the first class ticket to the Ladies’ Car, and that was where she intended to stay. The conductor attempted at that time to remove Wells from her seat and evict her to the smoking car by force. Wells relates:
“He tried to drag me out of the seat, but 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 t help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out. They were encouraged to do this by the attitude of the white ladies and gentlemen in the car; some of them even stood on the seats so they could get a better view and continued applauding the conductor for his brave stand” (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 1970, pp. 19-20).
Rather than relent to being placed in the smoking car, Wells opted to get off at the station they were approaching. On her return to Memphis, she hired a black lawyer and sued the railroad for a breach of the terms of service– she had bought a first-class ticket and was denied the ability to use what she had actually purchased. Though she needed to change lawyers mid-stream (her black lawyer– the only one in town– had been bought off by the railroad, Wells alleged), Wells’ case ended up before an ex-Union soldier, Judge Pierce (originally from Minnesota) who awarded her $500 in damages– some $13,000 in 2015 money after adjustment due to inflation. The case became a national sensation: “A Darky Damsel Obtains a Verdict for Damages against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad– What it Cost to Put a Colored School Teacher in a Smoking Car” proclaimed the headline of the Memphis Daily Appeal on Christmas Day 1884 (University of Chicago Library, 2007).
Thought Wells’ award of damages were later overturned by Tennessee Supreme Court, the effect of the incident on Wells was plain: She was not then, and would never allow herself to be a woman restrained, constrained, and minoritized by society, consequences be damned. It also set the tone for her work to follow: Fearless, direct, and relentless in her pursuit of justice.
Memphis Appeal-Avalanche. (1884, December 25). A Darky Damsel Obtains a Verdict for Damages Against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. Memphis Appeal-Avalanche. Retrieved March 2016, from Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library: http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/scrc/findingaids/view.php?eadid=ICU.SPCL.IBWELLS&q=ida%20b%20wells#idp132495984
University of Chicago Library. (2009). Biographical Note. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from Guide to the Ida B . Wells Papers 1884-1976 : http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/scrc/findingaids/view.php?eadid=ICU.SPCL.IBWELLS&q=ida%20b%20wells#idp196081648
Wells, I. B. (1970). Crusade for Justice. (A. M. Duster, Ed.) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.