The Truth Will Unite Us: Ida B. Wells Against the Railroad
On September 15, 1883, Wells purchased a train ticket from Memphis to Woodstock, Tennessee. She purchased a first class ticket, then took her seat in the rear car. The rear car was reserved for white passengers, although black women were also allowed and were known to ride there. Seventy-two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Wells refused to give up her seat in the “white car” of a train. She subsequently sued the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad Company (CO&S) for the injustice, and initially won the case, but lost on appeal. The full transcript of the trial can be found here and here. Not surprisingly, the CO&S Railroad claimed that their policies had nothing to do with racism; looking over the case, however, it is clear that the CO&S had a segregation policy in place, even before it was mandated by Jim Crow laws.
Wells wrote in her memoir that, as she sat reading reading a book on a seat in the rear car, the train conductor asked her to move to accommodate a white man who was accompanying another woman. She continued reading. The conductor then tried to forcibly remove her from the car and put her in the smoker’s car, but Wells fought him. During the ensuing melee, she bit the conductor on the hand. She was asked to leave the train; she left the train voluntarily, as the white passengers applauded. 1
Court documents tell a slightly different story. There were three train cars; two passengers cars and one freight car, that had a sort of carpet/fabric divider in the middle of the car. In the rear of the freight car, smoking and drinking were allowed. The middle car was designated for African American passengers or overflow passengers. It was against the rules to smoke or drink in this or the rear car. The rear car was for white passengers, although it was stated, by several witnesses, that it was not uncommon for black women to sit there.
Witnesses stated that the conductor did not strictly enforce the “no smoking” or “no drinking” policies in the middle car, so black ladies were often subjected to tobacco smoke that made them sick. Although segregation laws were not yet in place, it was understood by employees of the railroad company that black passengers should be segregated from white passengers, and that only white customers could occupy the rear car. The no smoking and no drinking policies were strictly enforced in the rear car.
On September 15, 1883, a white man who was clearly intoxicated was sat in the middle car; this was confirmed by several witnesses. Wells asserted this in court, although one witness stated that Wells had been overheard saying that she would sit in the rear car “on her next trip,” about a week before this incident, a statement which sought to question her true motives for refusing to sit in the middle car. Wells asserted that she was not the same woman who had made that statement. 2
Wells was indeed a headstrong individual and she may well have resolved to protest the railroad company’s segregation policy on a future journey. The policy was, after all, discriminatory. It is clear, however, that Wells thought her protest would proceed without serious incident. It seems that she did not expect them to attempt to physically remove her from the train - essentially assaulting her - or tear her dress during the assault.
CO&S found witnesses to testify that Wells was quarrelsome, and that was the true reason she was forced off the train. It is possible that they were telling the truth, of course, because Wells was prone to outbursts. However, their testimonies exposed, rather than camouflaged, their racism.
Virginius Kimbrough of Atoka, Tennessee, testified that Wells quarreled with his wife, Allene, and his wife’s friend, Mrs. Ed Wendle (or "Wendol"). According to Kimbrough, Wells claimed that Mrs. Kimbrough had taken her seat.3 When asked whether Wells was asked to leave because of her color, Kimbrough stated that:
“There was no complaint by any one of the coming into the coach on account of the color it was only through her insolence in demanding the seat which Mrs. Kimbrough occupied that caused the complaint and there was no objection on account of her being a colored woman.” 4
However, Kimbrough then added:
“…I thought that she was Mrs. Wedols [sic] nurse until the controversy arose about the seat, colored woman does not arouse my indignation in entering the ladies coach so long as they conduct themselves in a proper manner.” 5
Ultimately, the lower court decided that that CO&S had violated the “separate but equal” clause, because Wells purchased a first class ticket and was not allowed first class accommodation, because a man was smoking on the middle car. The Supreme Court of Tennessee overturned this decision on appeal; they opined that CO&S offered equal accommodation in the middle car, i.e., that the middle car was both separate and equal.
Wells later spoke about the decision in her memoir:
“It was 12 years afterwards before I knew why the case attracted so much attention and was fought so bitterly by the railroad. It was the first case in which a colored plaintiff had appealed to a state court after the repeal or the Civil Rights Bill by the US Supreme Court - the gist of which decision was that negroes were not wards of the nation but citizens of the individual states and should appeal to state courts for justice inserted of the federal. The success of my case would have been a precedent and in this as in so many other matters, the South wanted the Civil Rights Bill repealed, but she did not want not intend to give justice to the negro after having robbed him of other sources from which to secure it.” 6
- A monument to civil rights crusader Ida B. Wells is long overdue - Chicago Tribune
Ida B. Wells recognition is long overdue.
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© 2018 Carrie Peterson