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Before Rosa Parks, There Was Ida B. Wells-Barnett

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Because history is largely based on perspective, many historical greats are seemingly omitted from history. For instance, it is believed by many that Rosa Parks was the first to protest the giving up of her seat to a white man. While this story is often heralded as a testimony of protest and change—particularly in relation to the formation of the Civil Rights Movement, there was a woman who refused to give up her seat 71 years before Rosa Parks. Her name was Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

A prolific writer, Ida B. Wells-Barnett dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of African Americans; she also dedicated her life to fighting on behalf of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. However, her fight for social equality started while she was traveling via train to Memphis. According to Lee D. Baker, Wells-Barnett was asked by a conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man (www.duke.edu). She refused, and explained that the “forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smok[ing] car” (as cited in www.duke.edu). “As I was in the ladies’ car” she continued, “I proposed that I stay [where I was]” (as cited in www.duke.edu).

What ensued was a physical confrontation between Wells-Barnett, the conductor, the railroad’s baggageman, and another man. According to Wells-Barnett: 

[The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth to 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 baggageman and another man to help him…of course they succeeded in dragging me out” (as cited from Baker at www.duke.edu).

While one would seemingly back down after being thrown off a train by three men, Ida B. Wells-Barnett not only hired an attorney to sue the railroad company, she won her case in 1885 after she filed it in the Memphis local circuit court system (www.wikipedia.org). Though this winning was later appealed (and eventually reversed by the Supreme Court of Tennessee) in 1887 by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, it was this legal battle that created a champion who diligently fought for the rights of African Americans and women. In this sense, Wells-Barnett was the victor in this dispute because she discovered—and used her gift of writing to--expose racial and sexual injustice.

References:

Baker, Lee D. “Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Passion for Justice” 1996 (www.duke.edu/~ldbaker/classes/AAIH/caaih/ibwells/ibwbkgrd.html)