Ida's father James was a master at carpentry and a "race man" who worked for the advancement of blacks. He was very interested in politics and was a member of the Loyal League. He attended Shaw U. in Holly Springs (now Rust College) but dropped out to help his family. He also attended public speeches and campaigned for local black candidates, but he never ran for office. Her mother Lizzie was a cook for the Bolling household before her death from yellow fever. She was a religious woman who was very strict with her children.
Ida attended Shaw but was expelled for her rebellious behavior and temper after confronting the college president. While visiting her grandmother in the Miss. Valley in 1878, she received word that Holly Springs had suffered a yellow fever epidemic. At 16, she lost her parents and 10-mo.-old brother, Stanley. The '78 epidemic swept through the South with many fatalities.
Following the funerals, friends and relatives decided that the six remaining Wells children should be sent to various foster homes. Ida resisted this solution. To keep her younger siblings together as a family, she dropped out of Shaw and found work as a teacher in a black elementary school. (The schools were racially segregated.) Her grandmother Peggy Wells, along with other friends and relatives, stayed with the children during the week while she was away teaching. Without this help, she would have not been able to keep her siblings together. She resented that white teachers were paid $80 a month when she was paid only $30 a month. This discrimination made her more interested in the politics of race and improving the education of blacks.
In 1883, Ida B. Wells took three of her younger siblings to Memphis, Tenn., to live with her aunt and to be closer to other family members. She found she could earn higher wages there as a teacher. Soon after moving, she was hired in Woodstock for the Shelby County school system. During her summer vacations, she attended summer sessions at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville; its graduates were well respected in the black community. She also attended LeMoyne. She held strong political opinions and provoked many people with her views on women's rights. At 24, she wrote, "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge."
On May 4, 1884, a train conductor with the Chesapeake,Ohio and Southwestern Railroad ordered Wells to give up her seat and move to the smoking car, which was already crowded with other passengers. The year before, the Supreme Court had struck down the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Several railroad companies continued illegal racial segregation of their passengers, especially in the South.
Wells refused to give up her seat, 71 years before the activist Rosa Parks showed similar resistance on a bus. The conductor and two men dragged Wells out of the car. When she returned to Memphis, she hired an African-American attorney to sue the railroad. She also became a public figure in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train. When her lawyer was paid off by the railroad, she hired a white attorney. She won her case on December 24, 1884, when the local circuit court granted her a $500 settlement. The railroad company appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling in 1887. It concluded, "We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride." Wells was ordered to pay court costs.
While teaching elementary school, Wells was offered an editorial position for the Evening Star. She also wrote weekly articles for The Living Way weekly newspaper under the pen name "Iola" and gained a reputation for writing about the race issue. In 1889, she became co-owner and editor of Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregationist newspaper that was started by Rev. R. Nightingale and was based at the Beale St. Bapt. Ch. in Memphis. It published articles about racial injustice.
In March 1892, racial tensions were rising in Memphis. Violence was becoming the norm. Her three friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, owned the People's Grocery Company. It was doing well and was seen as competitive with a white-owned grocery store across the street. While Wells was out of town in Natchez, Mississippi, a white mob invaded her friends' store. During the altercation, three white men were shot and injured. Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were arrested and jailed. A large lynch mob stormed the jail and killed the three men.
After the lynching of her friends, Wells wrote in Free Speech and Headlight, urging blacks to leave Memphis:
Wells emphasized the public spectacle of the lynching. Over 6,000 blacks did leave; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. After being threatened with violence, she bought a pistol. She later wrote, "They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth."
The murder drove Wells to research and document lynchings and their causes. She began investigative journalism, looking at the charges given for the murders. She officially started her anti-lynching campaign. She spoke on the issue at various black women’s clubs, and raised more than $500 to investigate lynchings and publish her results. Wells found that blacks were lynched for such reasons as failing to pay debts, not appearing to give way to whites, competing with whites economically, being drunk in public. She published her findings in a pamphlet entitled "Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases". She wrote an article that suggested that, unlike the myth that white women were sexually at risk of attacks by black men, most liaisons between black men and white women were consensual. While she was away in Philadelphia, a mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight on May 27, 1892 in retaliation for her controversial articles, three months after her three friends were lynched.
Wells next spoke to groups in New York City, where her audiences included many leading African-American women. Because of the threats to her life, she moved from Memphis to Chicago. Wells continued to wage her anti-lynching campaign and to write columns attacking Southern injustices. Her articles were published in The New York Age newspaper. Her writings continued to investigate the incidents that were referred to as causes for lynching black men.
Together with Frederick Douglass and other black leaders, she organized a black boycott of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for its failure to collaborate with the black community on exhibits representing African-American life. Wells, Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn and Ferdinand L. Barnett wrote sections of a pamphlet to be distributed there: "Reasons Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition" detailed the progress of blacks since their arrival in America and the workings of Southern lynchings. Wells later reported to Albion W. Tourgée that copies of the pamphlet had been distributed to more than 20,000 people at the fair. After the World's Fair in Chicago, Wells decided to stay in the city instead of returning to New York. That year she started work with the Chicago Conservator, the oldest African-American newspaper in the city.
Also in 1893, Wells contemplated a libel suit against two black Memphis attorneys. She turned to Tourgée, who had trained and practiced as a lawyer and judge, for possible free legal help. Deeply in debt, Tourgée could not afford to help but asked his friend Ferdinand L. Barnett if he could. Barnett accepted the pro bono job. Born in Alabama, Barnett had become the editor of the Chicago Conservator in 1878. He was an assistant state attorney for 14 years.
She set an early precedent as being one of the first married American women to keep her own last name along with her husband's.
The couple had four children: Charles, Herman, Ida, and Alfreda. In her autobiography, A Divided Duty, Wells described the difficulty she had splitting her time between her family and her work. She continued to work after the birth of her first child, traveling and bringing the infant Charles with her. Although she tried to balance her worlds, she could not be as active in her work. Susan B. Anthony said she seemed "distracted". After having her second child, Wells stepped out of her touring and public life for a time, as she could no longer balance her job with her family.