Ida Bell Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, several months before United States President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate-held territory. Her parents, James Wells, a carpenter, and Elizabeth "Lizzie" (Warrenton) Wells, a cook, were both enslaved by Spires Bolling, an architect. She was one of eight children. Wells was a hardworking, opinionated man who was actively interested in politics and in helping to provide educational opportunities for the liberated slaves and for his own eight children.
Tragedy struck the Wells family when she was about 16 years old. Her parents and some of her brothers and sisters died in a yellow fever epidemic while Wells was in another town visiting relatives. With a small legacy left by her parents, she was determined to assume the role of mothering her younger brothers and sisters. A few years later, after placing the older children as apprentices in the local school, she moved to Memphis with some of the younger children to live with a relative.