Friday, July 15, 2016

Honoring Ida B. Wells

Tomorrow (July 16th) is Ida B. Wells’ 154th birthday. In her honor, we here at the Library & Archives want to celebrate her courage by recalling the notable Supreme Court case Ida Wells v. Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railway Company. This case is particularly significant because it was one of the earliest challenges of legal segregation in the United States.

Born into slavery on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells was an activist, journalist, newspaper editor, and suffragist during her lifetime. In the early 1880s, she moved to Memphis and became a school teacher in Shelby County. During her summer vacations, she also attended Fisk University in Nashville.

Portrait of Ida B. Wells Barnett from Sparking Gems of Race Knowledge Worth Reading.

Congress approved the Civil Rights Act of 1875 during Reconstruction, banning racial discrimination in public accommodations. However, in 1883, the Supreme Court ruled against the act, allowing businesses like railroad companies to racially separate passengers.

Cover page from Ida Wells v. Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railway Company.

On September 15, 1883, Wells bought a first class ticket aboard the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railway Company from Memphis to Woodstock, Tennessee. After she took her seat in first class, “the defendants by its agents forcibly and with personal violence eject[ed] her from said seat.” Wells sued the railroad company for $1,000 in damages for “unlawfully and forcibly lay[ing] violent hands on her and beat[ing] and mistreat[ing] and misus[ing] her.” She hired T. F. Cassels, a notable attorney from Memphis who had been one of the first African Americans to be elected to the Tennessee General Assembly to represent her.

Thomas F. Cassels, from 42nd Tennessee General Assembly Composite.

The Circuit Court of Shelby County awarded in favor of Wells, but the railroad appealed the case and it went to the Tennessee Supreme Court in April 1885. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision and sided with the railroad.

Despite losing the court case, Wells went on to become one of the leading African-American civil rights leaders of her time. She founded several organizations and travelled the world speaking about human rights until her death in Chicago of kidney failure on May 28, 1931.

You can learn more about this case and other cases in the Tennessee Supreme Courts Records Project on our website at

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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