Today is writer and activist Ida B. Wells’s birthday. Sarah L. Silkey’s biography of Wells, Black Woman Reformer, covers Wells’s time in England and her efforts to rally British public opinion against the brutal practice of lynching, designed to terrorize blacks and enforce white supremacy. The following excerpt describes Wells’s reaction to the lynching of three black men in Memphis in 1892 and how her personal connection to the victims changed her approach to reporting these crimes.
The Lynching at the Curve
Wells’s activism covered a wide range of issues until the March 1892 lynching of three African American businessmen in Memphis focused her attention on lynching. Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart owned the People’s Grocery Company, a successful store located in the Curve, a black neighborhood on the outskirts of Memphis where the streetcar line curved sharply. A white store owner, W. H. Barrett, had enjoyed a monopoly before the People’s Grocery opened, and he responded to the appearance of a competitor by trying to destroy the business. Moss, McDowell, and Stewart stood their ground, but after a physical altercation, Barrett secured a grand jury indictment against the grocers. Knowing that white deputies would be going to the store to serve warrants for the arrest of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart, Barrett started a rumor that a white mob was preparing to attack. Living beyond the city limits without police protection, the owners of the People’s Grocery recruited several of their black neighbors to stand guard. When the deputies attempted to enter the building, the guards mistakenly believed that the white men were a mob, opened fire, and wounded three deputies. White citizens used the incident as an excuse to loot black homes and arrest and beat more than thirty black men. Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were imprisoned. When the Tennessee Rifles, a black militia, attempted to guard the prison from mob attack, their guns were confiscated by white authorities. After four days, a group of white men entered the jail, took Moss, McDowell, and Stewart outside the city limits, and shot them, leaving their bodies in a field, partly covered with brush. McDowell had struggled with the lynchers and seized one of their guns. His hand had been shattered by a bullet, and perhaps in retaliation for his resistance, his eyes had been gouged out.
The Memphis lynching was uncharacteristic of the city, which, despite disfranchisement and segregation, had developed a reputation for calm race relations and had experienced relatively little racial violence since Reconstruction. The event was both shocking and personal for Wells, who knew two of the men and was godmother to the daughter of one of the victims. Before the murder of her friends, Wells claimed, she had accepted southern excuses that mob violence was a necessary response to the rape of white women by black men. Wells claimed that she, like many other middle-class African Americans, had believed that the subjugation of the black race was a temporary response to the moral weakness of the race as a whole and would be remedied by educational and economic improvements in the black community. But Wells’s mind was changed by the lynching of her friends to appease the jealousy of their white business rival. The fact that the men she knew had committed no crime against white women “opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down.’” Wells concluded that lynching was designed to prevent African Americans from achieving social, political, and economic equality with white Americans.
Wells channeled her personal outrage over the “Lynching at the Curve” into her editorials and investigative journalism. She gathered statistics on lynching from white newspapers to demonstrate that assaults on white women were not the primary motivation for lynching. Her investigation revealed that rape was alleged against the victims of only one-third of all reported lynchings, and in some cases, those lynchings were precipitated by revelations regarding clandestine but consensual sexual relationships between white women and black men. In other words, lynch mobs had transformed voluntary interracial relationships into rape to justify the murder of black men who defied social mores. Wells publicized her findings through increasingly incendiary editorials in the Free Speech.
On May 21, 1892, Wells penned an editorial that propelled her into the national spotlight and changed the course of her life. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful,” she warned, “they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” Wells’s implication that white women were attracted to black men infuriated local whites. An angry editorial in the Memphis Daily Commercial encouraged leading citizens to take action against the “black scoundrel” who uttered such “obscene intimations” about the racial purity of white women. Assuming that the author of the offending editorial was a man, the Memphis Evening Scimitar reprinted the Commercial’s editorial and warned, “If the Negroes themselves do not apply the remedy without delay, it will be the duty of those whom he has attacked to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake . . . brand him in the forehead with a hot iron, and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.” The Free Speech had finally exhausted the white community’s patience and only the torture and castration of the editor could appease its indignation. A mob organized by local businessmen responded by destroying the newspaper. Fearing for his life, Wells’s coeditor, J. L. Fleming, fled the city. Wells had departed for a conference in Philadelphia before the editorial went to press, but mob leaders vowed to kill her if she dared return.
Less than a year later, Henry Smith’s lynching in Paris, Texas, inspired two British women, Catherine Impey and Isabella Fyvie Mayo, to invite Wells to become the spokesperson for a nascent transatlantic antilynching movement. Unsettled by the dissonance between British beliefs about American lynching as a form of “frontier justice” and the harsh reality of the Smith lynching, British audiences were ready to hear Wells’s critique of American lynching.