by Bill Carey
If you read about the Civil Rights Movement, you’ll find reference to a lawsuit Ida B. Wells filed that foreshadowed events three-quarters of a century later.
A few years ago, thanks to state archivist Wayne Moore, I found the documents from this case on file at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
In 1883, the 20-year-old Wells was working as a teacher in Memphis when she tried to sit in the section of a passenger train that was, by custom, reserved for whites only. The conductor told her to move to the front coach. She refused, was kicked off the train, and sued the railroad for $5,000 in damages.
According to the handwritten record of the case (Ida Wells vs. Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwest Railroad), the incident occurred in September 1883. As background to the event, Judge James O. Pierce noted that the Tennessee General Assembly had passed laws allowing railroads to segregate races, so long as they charged different amounts for first and second-class tickets. Judge Pierce also explained that, typically, railroads designated front, “second class” passenger cars for “colored” passengers and white passengers who smoke, while reserving rear “first-class” passenger cars for white, non-smoking passengers.
Wells traveled alone on September 15, and she purchased a first-class ticket from Memphis to Woodstock prior to boarding the train. When the car had gone about a mile, conductor William Murry came by her seat, in the rear coach, and said he would not accept her ticket until she moved. A few minutes later, Murry returned and said Wells would have to move to the other car because that was where Black people must ride. “I replied that I would not ride in the forward car, that I had a seat and intended to keep it,” Wells testified. “He said to me that he would treat me like a lady, but that I must go into the other car, and, I replied that if he wished to treat me like a lady, he would leave me alone.”
When the train arrived at its first stop (Frayser), the conductor returned again and told her she would have to move. “He then took hold of me to carry me to the other car,” Wells claimed. “I resisted him – holding onto my seat – when he called for help, and two white passengers helped him to carry me out.
“My dress was torn in the struggle, my sleeve almost torn off. Everybody in the car seemed to sympathize with the conductor and were against me. . . when they got me onto the platform between the cars, I got off the train refusing to go into the forward coach.” Murry’s testimony differed from Wells in a couple of ways. He claimed he used no more force than necessary and said he “got the worst of it,” claiming she “bit” and “scratched me badly.”
Other witnesses included, among others: Black minister G.H. Clovers, who had been in the forward coach. Clovers testified that other people in the forward coach were smoking and drinking, and that it was not a pleasant place to be. “The people in said forward coach where I was were rough. They were smoking, talking and drinking. It was no fit place for a lady.”
White physician J.E. Blades, who gave his account of the incident, sympathetic to the conductor, and added his opinion: “White people as a rule do object to colored people being allowed to ride in the same car with them. It is unpleasant to ladies and to gentleman.”
Virginius Kimbrough, a white farmer and merchant, who said that the idea of a Black woman in the first-class coach “does not arouse my indignation in entering the ladies coach so long as they conduct themselves in a proper manner.” On Christmas Eve, 1884, Judge Pierce ruled in favor of Wells and awarded her $500 in damages. The railroad appealed the case and eventually won their appeal before the Tennessee Supreme Court (siding with the railroad). “We know of no rule that requires railroad companies to yield to the disposition of passengers to arbitrarily determine as to the coach in which they take passage,” the court said.
Well thus lost her case. Seventy-one years later, Rosa Parks made a similar protest in Montgomery, Alabama, that helped ignite the modern Civil Rights Movement.