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Crusade for Justice
The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells
By Ida B. Wells, Alfreda M. Duster
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1970 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Born into Slavery
I WAS BORN IN HOLLY SPRINGS, MISSISSIPPI, BEFORE THE CLOSE of the Civil War [16 July 1862]. My parents, who had been slaves and married as such, were married again after freedom came. My father had been taught the carpenter's trade, and my mother was a famous cook. As the erstwhile slaves had performed most of the labor of the South, they had no trouble in finding plenty of work to do.
My father [called Jim] was the son of his master, who owned a plantation in Tippah County, Mississippi, and one of his slave women, Peggy. Mr. Wells had no children by his wife, "Miss Polly," and my father grew up on the plantation, the companion and comfort of his old age. He was never whipped or put on the auction block, and he knew little of the cruelties of slavery. When young Jim was eighteen years old, his father took him to Holly Springs and apprenticed him to learn the carpenter's trade, which he expected him to use on the plantation.
My mother was cook to old man Boiling, the contractor and builder to whom my father was apprenticed. She was born in Virginia and was one of ten children. She and two sisters were sold to slave traders when young, and were taken to Mississippi and sold again. She often told her children that her father was half Indian, his father being a full blood. She often wrote back to somewhere in Virginia trying to get track of her people, but she was never successful. We were too young to realize the importance of her efforts, and I have never remembered the name of the county or people to whom they "belonged."
After the war was over Mr. Boiling urged his able young apprentice to remain with him. He did so until election time. Mr. Boiling wanted him to vote the Democratic ticket, which he refused to do. When he returned from voting he found the shop locked. Jim Wells said nothing to anyone, but went downtown, bought a new set of tools, and went across the street and rented another house. When Mr. Boiling returned he found he had lost a workman and a tenant, for already Wells had moved his family off the Boiling place.
I do not remember when or where I started school. My earliest recollections are of reading the newspaper to my father and an admiring group of his friends. He was interested in politics and I heard the words Ku Klux Klan long before I knew what they meant. I knew dimly that it meant something fearful, by the anxious way my mother walked the floor at night when my father was out to a political meeting. Yet so far as I can remember there were no riots in Holly Springs, although there were plenty in other parts of the state.
Our job was to go to school and learn all we could. The Freedmen's Aid had established [in 1866] one of its schools in our town—it was called Shaw University then, but is now Rust College. My father was one of the trustees and my mother went along to school with us until she learned to read the Bible. After that she visited the school regularly to see how we were getting along. A deeply religious woman, she won the prize for regular attendance at Sunday school, taking the whole brood of six to nine o'clock Sunday school the year before she died. She taught us how to do the work of the home—each had a regular task besides schoolwork, and I often compare her work in training her children to that of other women who had not her handicaps. She was not forty when she died, but she had borne eight children and brought us up with a strict discipline that many mothers who have had educational advantages have not exceeded. She used to tell us how she had been beaten by slave owners and the hard times she had as a slave.
The only thing I remember about my father's reference to slave days was when his mother came to town on one of her annual visits [after slavery]. She and her husband owned and tilled many acres of land and every fall brought their cotton and corn to market. She also brought us many souvenirs from hog-killing time. On one such occasion she told about "Miss Polly," her former mistress, and said, "Jim, Miss Polly wants you to come and bring the children. She wants to see them."
"Mother," said he, "I never want to see that old woman as long as I live. I'll never forget how she had you stripped and whipped the day after the old man died, and I am never going to see her. I guess it is all right for you to take care of her and forgive her for what she did to you, but she could have starved to death if I'd had my say-so. She certainly would have, if it hadn't been for you."
I was burning to ask what he meant, but children were seen and not heard in those days. They didn't dare break into old folks' conversation. But I have never forgotten those words. Since I have grown old enough to understand I cannot help but feel what an insight to slavery they give.
I was visiting this grandmother down on the farm when life became a reality to me. Word came after I left home that yellow fever was raging in Memphis, Tennessee, fifty miles away, as it had done before, and that the mayor of our town refused to quarantine against Memphis. Our little burg opened its doors to any who wanted to come in. That summer the fever took root in Holly Springs. When we heard that the fever was there, we were sure my father would take the family out in the country; and because the mail was so irregular we didn't expect letters.
One day after a hard chill I was sweating off the resulting fever common to that malarial district when a hail at the gate brought me to the door. Three horsemen were there, and came in. My grandmother, aunt, and uncle were picking the first fall cotton out in the field. The men were all known to me as friends of my father and mother. They were refugees from Holly Springs whom I thought had come to make a social call. After they were seated I asked if they had any news from home. The answer was yes, and one of them handed me a letter that had just been received by one of the refugees in their party. As they were next-door neighbors of ours, I was glad to have firsthand information as to conditions there. I never dreamed there would be anything of personal interest in it. We were so sure that our family was in the country with my aunt Belle.
I read the first page of this letter through, telling the progress of the fever, and these words leaped out at me, "Jim and Lizzie Wells have both died of the fever. They died within twenty-four hours of each other. The children are all at home and the Howard Association has put a woman there to take care of them. Send word to Ida." That is as far as I read. The next thing I knew grandmother, aunt, and uncle were all in the house and ours indeed became a house of mourning. I wanted to go home at once, but not until three days later, on the receipt of a letter from the doctor in charge, who said I ought to come home, were they willing to let me go.
When my uncle and I got to the next railroad town, from which I was to take the train to Holly Springs, all the people in that station urged me not to go. They were sure that coming from the country I would fall victim at once, and that it was better for me to stay away until the epidemic was over, so that I could take care of the children, if any were left. They assured me no home doctor would have advised me to come into the district; that it was one of the stranger doctors who had been sent there and who would be gone soon and have no responsibility about those left. I consented to stay there and write home. But when I thought of my crippled sister, of the smaller children all down to the nine-month-old baby brother, the conviction grew within me that I ought to be with them. I went back to the station and the train that should have carried my letter took me home.
It was a freight train. No passenger trains were running or needed. And the caboose in which I rode was draped in black for two previous conductors who had fallen victims to the dreaded disease. The conductor who told me this was sure I had made a mistake to go home. I asked him why he was running the train when he knew he was likely to get the fever as had those others for whom the car was draped. He shrugged his shoulders and said that somebody had to do it. "That's exactly why I am going home. I am the oldest of seven living children. There's nobody but me to look after them now. Don't you think I should do my duty, too?" He said nothing more but bade me good-bye as though he never expected to see me again.
When I got home I found two of the children in bed with the fever—all had had slight attacks of it save Eugenia, my older sister, who was paralytic and seemingly immune. The baby, Stanley, had died.
Everybody asked why I had come home. The family physician scolded; also my sister, who could not walk a step; yet she seemed to be greatly relieved to have me there. She told me how our father went about his work nursing the sick, making coffins for the dead; that he would come to the gate bringing food and finding out how all were getting along. She said our mother was taken first and a young Irish woman had been sent to nurse her. The first thing the nurse did was to take the nine-month-old baby from the breast, which increased our mother's fever. The milk clotted in her breast, and when she knew she was going to die asked what would become of her children. Our father came home then to help nurse her but was stricken himself and died a day before she did.
Having seen his nurse going through her father's pockets, she asked the doctor who came every day to see them to take the money our father had with him when he came home and lock it in the safe downtown. This he did and gave her a receipt for three hundred dollars. It was this doctor who had written me to come home—getting the address from my sister.
As the fever was abating, the imported nurses and doctors of the Howard Association were leaving town every day, and my sister was anxious for me to get this money before they were all gone. I had a chill the day after getting home. I will always believe it was one of the usual malarial kind I had been having, but the old nurse in the house who had taken care of the children would take no chances. She put me to bed and sweated me four days and nights on hot lemonade.
Dr. Gray had not been to the house during this time and my sister gave me the receipt and a note to him as soon as I was able to go downtown. It was commissary day and a large crowd was waiting its turn to be served with groceries, clothing, shoes, etc., as no stores of any kind were open. Seeing persons I knew in the crowd, I asked them to point out Dr. Gray to me. When I handed him the note he said, "So you are Genie's big sister. Tell her the treasurer has the key to the safe and he is out in the country to see his family. He will be back this evening and I will bring her the money tonight, as I am leaving tomorrow."
He came and brought it that evening and told me that we had a wonderful father—one of the best aids in helping to nurse, since he was cheerful and always inspired confidence. He said, "Your father would be passing through the court house, which was used as a hospital, on his way to the shop, carrying some lumber to help make a coffin. If he passed a patient who was out of his head, he would stop to quiet him. If he were dying, he would kneel down and pray with him, then pick up his tools and go on with the rest of the day's work. Everyone liked him and missed him when he was gone."
After Dr. Gray had gone, the old nurse, who was from New Orleans said, "That Dr. Gray sure loved your pa. He came over where we nurses stayed and after looking us all over he said he was going to send me on a case where nobody was sick; that he just wanted me to stay with the children whose father and mother had died until something could be done for them. He said that he'd see that I got my pay same as if I was on a case—and I have, too. Dr. Gray sure is one good white man."
I never met Dr. Gray before nor saw him again, but in all these years I have shared and echoed that nurse's opinion every time I think of his humane and sympathetic watch over Jim Wells's family when they needed it. ]CHCHAPTER 2
MY SISTER, EUGENIA, WHO WAS NEXT TO ME IN AGE, HAD been an active, healthy child until two years before, when her spinal column began to bend outward. It started from a knot the size of one's knuckle in the middle of her backbone. That knot grew until the spinal cord was paralyzed and she was bent nearly double. She became paralyzed in the lower part of her body and was not able to walk. Then came two brothers, James and George. Another brother, Eddie, had died of spinal meningitis years before. Last were two sisters: Annie, five years old, and Lily, two. The nine-month-old baby, Stanley, had also died before I got home. Thus there were six of us left, and I, the oldest, was only fourteen years old . After being a happy, light-hearted schoolgirl I suddenly found myself at the head of a family.
When the fever epidemic was over, there was a gathering of Masons at our house to decide what to do with us. Since my father had been a master Mason, the Masonic brothers were our natural protectors. After a long discussion among them that Sunday afternoon the children had all been provided for except Eugenia and myself. Each of two brother Masons' wives wanted a little girl, and the Masonic brothers decided that they could have my two little sisters. A home was thus waiting for them. Two men wanted to apprentice the boys to learn their father's trade. One of those was a white man who knew James Wells's work and thought that his boys had inherited some of their father's ability. Genie was to go to the poorhouse because she was helpless and no one offered her a home. The unanimous decision among the Masonic brothers was that I was old enough to fend for myself.
When all this had been arranged to their satisfaction, I, who said nothing before and had not even been consulted, calmly announced that they were not going to put any of the children anywhere; I said that it would make my father and mother turn over in their graves to know their children had been scattered like that and that we owned the house and if the Masons would help me find work, I would take care of them. Of course they scoffed at the idea of a butterfly fourteen-year-old schoolgirl who had never had to care for herself trying to do what it had taken the combined effort of father and mother to do.
But I held firmly to my position and they seemed rather relieved that they no longer had to worry over the problem. Two of them, Bob Miller and James Hall, had been appointed by the Masons as our guardians and they advised me to apply for _a country school. I took the examination for a country schoolteacher and had my dresses lengthened, and I got a school six miles out in the country. I was to be paid the munificent sum of twenty-five dollars a month. While I waited at home for the opening of school we lived on the money that my father had left.
Of course as a young, inexperienced girl who had never had a beau, too young to have been out in company except at children's parties, I knew nothing whatever of the world's ways of looking at things and never dreamed that the community would not understand why I didn't want our children separated. But someone said that I had been downtown inquiring for Dr. Gray shortly after I had come from the country. They heard him tell me to tell my sister he would get the money, meaning my father's money, and bring it to us that night. It was easy for that type of mind to deduce and spread the rumor that already, as young as I was, I had been heard asking white men for money and that was the reason I wanted to live there by myself with the children.
I am quite sure that never in all my life have I suffered such a shock as I did when I heard this misconstruction that had been placed upon my determination to keep my brothers and sisters together. As I look back at it now I can perhaps understand the type of mind which drew such conclusions. And no one suggested that I was laying myself open to gossiping tongues.
My grandmother came from her country home to stay with us after that, and although she must have been seventy years old she tried to help out by doing work by the day. One evening after a hard day's work she got up to cross the room and fell with a paralytic stroke. My aunt, who was her only daughter, came and took her back to the country, where she lived until her death a few years later.
Excerpted from Crusade for Justice by Ida B. Wells, Alfreda M. Duster. Copyright © 1970 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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