She soon became a teacher in order to earn money for the family and eventually ended up working in Memphis. While there, one day changed her life forever. She was accustomed to riding the train in whatever seat she chose. In 1884, she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad because they forbade her from sitting in the ladies coach. She subsequently wrote an article about the experience. The success of her article about the case influenced her career change from teacher to journalist.
As injustices against former slaves raged throughout the South and a reign of terror began, Wells' sense of indignation and quest for justice was fueled. She decided to use her pen to expose the motives behind the violence. Lynching had become one of the main tactics in the strategy to terrorize blacks, and exposing its real purpose became the target of her crusade for justice. When three of her male friends, who were upstanding, law-abiding, successful businessmen opened a grocery store (in direct competition with a white-owned store), were lynched on the pretext of a crime they did not commit, Wells wrote about the situation with a clarity and forcefulness that riveted the attention of both blacks and whites. Her major contention that lynchings were a systematic attempt to subordinate the black community was incendiary.
She advocated for both an economic boycott and a mass exodus. She traveled through the United States and England, writing and speaking about lynching and the government's refusal to intervene to stop it. This so enraged her enemies that they burned her presses, and put a price on her head, threatening her life if she returned to the South. She remained in exile for almost forty years.
Wells went to Chicago in the mid-1890s where she met and married Ferdinand Barnett, a widower and a fellow crusader who was a well-known attorney as well as the founder of The Conservator newspaper. In addition to raising Barnett's two children from his previous marriage, the couple had four children of their own in eight years. Even with this added responsibility, Wells continued in her relentless fight for social justice. She was very active in the suffragist movement and became one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association for Colored Women (NACW).