Ida Wells is Forcibly Removed from Her 1st Class Train Seat that she had Purchased Sparking her Rise as an Activist and Journalist

On May 4, 1884, a train conductor with the Memphis and Charleston Railroad ordered Wells to give up her seat in the first-class ladies car and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. The year before, the Supreme Court had ruled against the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 (which had banned racial discrimination in public accommodations). This verdict supported railroad companies that chose to racially segregate their passengers. When Wells refused to give up her seat, the conductor and two men dragged her out of the car. Wells gained publicity in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train. In Memphis, she hired an African-American attorney to sue the railroad. When her lawyer was paid off by the railroad, she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884, when the local circuit court granted her a $500 award. The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling in 1887. It concluded, “We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride.” Wells was ordered to pay court costs. Wells’ reaction to the higher court’s decision expressed her strong convictions on civil rights and religious faith, as she responded: “I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people…O God, is there no…justice in this land for us?”

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