In Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, a baby girl was born to James and Elizabeth (née Warren) Wells; they would name her Ida Bell. James’ father, who was White, had brought James to Holly Springs to be a carpenter’s apprentice; his mother, Peggy, was a Black woman who, as a child, had been sold from her family.
Because of their race, the Wells family was enslaved and considered property of the Bolling family. On the plantation, her father worked in carpentry and her mother labored in cooking. When the Civil War ended in 1865, soon after, slavery throughout the United States was made illegal. During the Reconstruction period, the Wells became highly active in the Black community. They emphasized to their eight children the imperative importance of involvement in and commitment to Black activism, especially politically, economically and educationally.
James, a member of the Republican Party, was fired by his former master of the Bolling plantation when he cast his own vote contrary to what Bolling demanded. Locked out from the carpentry shop, Wells bought his own tools and began his own carpentry business. He was also a member of the Freedman’s Aid Society, an organization started by the American Missionary Association in 1861 that assisted, from an educational vantage, where Blacks newly freed from slavery. The association set up schools in the South that those Blacks could be educated to become teachers, nurses and other professionals.
Additionally, James Wells helped establish in 1866 what would be chartered as Shaw University in 1870. A private, liberal arts college, it would be renamed Rust College in 1892 and is presently one of only ten historically Black colleges and universities, founded before 1868 that is still in operation. Rust College, as the second oldest private college in Mississippi, is the oldest of the eleven historically Black universities and colleges associated with The United Methodist Church.
Ida was a very bright girl who loved to learn and read, which she often did to her father and his friends during the evenings. She received her early education at Rust College. However, when she was away visiting her grandmother, Peggy, who lived near Holly Springs, an epidemic of yellow fever struck her home city. In 1878, Ida lost both her parents and a baby brother to the deadly virus. In order to keep her immediate family intact, Ida took custody of her siblings. Only sixteen years old, she accepted a teaching position in her local community school. While Ida worked during the day, her paternal grandmother, Peggy Wells, took care of the children.