This Day in Black History: May 4, 1884

Ida B. Wells was discriminated against by a train conductor, who forced her to move her seat on a train.

Posted: 05/04/2014 12:00 AM EDT

On May 4, 1884, journalist and activist Ida B. Wells was asked by a train conductor to move from her seat in a ladies' car into a smoking car on a ride to Nashville, Tennessee, where she would be taking classes at Fisk University.

After Wells refused to move, she was physically forced by a group of men in the car to move from her seat.

The incident led her to file a lawsuit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad company. Wells won the case and was awarded $500. But her victory lasted for a short time as the company appealed the verdict and the case went to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The court reversed the decision and ruled that Wells attempted to cause the railway "difficulty" by not following the conductor's orders. 

Wells's case received national attention as it was the first of its kind. She used the moment as an opportunity to begin writing about the incident for The Living Way, a Black church newspaper. The article's popularity landed her a column called the "Iola."

This began Wells's writing career. In the months to come, she was publishing articles in Black newspapers across the country. By 1889, she became part-owner and editor of a Memphis publication called Free Speech and Headlight.  


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 (Photo: R. Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 

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