Ida B. Wells’s Train Ride in Memphis and the Dawn of Jim Crow

by Lee Harris

View Full Article


Before Rosa Parks, Ida B. Wells and women across the United States during the late 19th century were challenging discriminatory practices on the public transit system of their era: the railroads. In 1881, Wells, who would eventually become a history-making anti-lynching crusader, was just 19 years old. She was readying herself to leave Holly Springs, Mississippi, her hometown, for the first time and move to Memphis for a higher-paying teaching job. She planned to commute by train to and from her new position. Developers had laid train tracks around the city, and Memphis boasted seven rail lines. In those years of her youth, before she left the South for the national stage, Wells was a regular train commuter in Memphis. Also, at the time of her young adulthood, racial segregation was still at its embryonic stage. However, principles of segregation had been spreading incredibly fast into multiple domains, including the developing transit system. Soon enough, her usual train commute from Memphis set the backdrop for one of the most consequential legal changes taking place in the country and the arrival of Jim Crow. Before Rosa Parks, Ida B. Wells was one of the first women in America to refuse to give up her seat and made a legal challenge to the segregationist system that was emerging nationwide. Although she did not win, her actions set the stage for the next several decades of the fight against segregation and Jim Crow.