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1883 - When a white conductor tried to manhandle Ida B. Wells, she took a bite out of his hand

In September of 1883, a 20-year old Ida B. Wells sat in the rear car of the train, minding her business, reading the newspaper. She was traveling from Memphis to Woodstock, Tennessee where she taught public school and was on the path to becoming a world-renowned anti-lynching activist and journalist. When the white conductor came to collect her ticket, he told her she needed to move to the front car because the rear was for whites only. “I replied that I would not ride in the forward car, that I had a seat and intended to keep it,” she later wrote in her lawsuit against the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad.

The conductor told Wells he’d treat her like a lady, but staying in the rear car was not an option. She retorted that if he wanted to treat her like a lady he’d leave her alone.

“I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”

Two white passengers assisted the conductor in forcefully removing her from her seat, according to to the legal brief submitted to the Supreme Court of Tennessee. She wrote, “I resisted all the time, and never consented to go. My dress was torn in the struggle, one sleve [sic] was almost torn off. Everybody in the car seemed to sympathize with the conductor, and were against me.”

The simple fact is that she had paid 30 cents for her ticket and the frontcar was often filled with drunks and smokers. She deemed it unfit for ladies. If white women didn’t have to be subjected to the shenanigans of the men in the front car, she wasn’t going to be either.

In 1884, Wells sued the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad for violating equal accommodation statutes and won. The judge ordered the railroad company to pay her $500 in damages. But the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict. Her $500 reward was cancelled and she was ordered to pay court fines. She wrote in her diary, “O God, is there no redress, no peace, no justice for us in this land for us?”

A black woman in the late 1800s biting a conductor in self-defense during a time when blacks were being lynched for merely existing was truly radical. Her victory in the courts may have been short-lived, but her defiance is a reminder that black people’s resistance didn’t just consist of peaceful marching and kumbaya moments with whites. It was for many, a battle that had to be fought literally with their teeth.


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