Never Another Lynching: The Crusade of Ida B. Wells
March 30, 2023
On March 9, 1892, the papers ran late in the city of Memphis, Tennessee. When they finally printed, they told the grotesque story of the previous night’s events in graphic detail.
At around 2:30 a.m. three Black men named Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart had been taken from their jail cells by approximately 75 masked white men, placed on a train north out of town and mercilessly gunned down by the mob.
“Everybody in town knew and loved Tommie,” wrote Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her autobiography, “Crusade for Justice.” “He and his wife Betty were the best friends I had in town. And he believed, with me, that we should defend the cause of right and fight wrong wherever we saw it.”
This tragedy, as told in “Crusade for Justice: the Autobiography of Ida B. Wells,” was the result of racial tensions in the neighborhood in which she lived, called the Curve, as the three men owned a grocery store named People’s Grocery, which competed with a White-owned store in the same area. The attack took place when Wells was out of town in Natchez, Mississippi, for a work assignment.
“Free Speech,” the newspaper Wells edited for in Memphis, Tennessee, was published even later than the others following that fateful night. In it, a plea was printed directed to the Black community declaring the city of Memphis could not be trusted to defend the lives of Black people against White violence and calling for those who could to flee somewhere safer and keep from spending to save for the eventuality.
The call would have the intended effects on the community in the following weeks, according to Wells. Churches left with their entire congregations, luxury goods stores saw their business nearly stop altogether and an ad-hoc boycott on the local railroad began in earnest among Black people.
Wells would see the effect of the boycott and the power of community action for herself and would take on a leading role, beginning a life of activism against the barbarity of lynching, according to Dr. Joseph Brown, a professor of Africana Studies at Southern Illinois University (SIU).
“So she wound up saying, ‘I need to rethink the whole notion of what lynching is about,’” Brown said.
According to Brown, the popular consensus surrounding lynchings at the time, which Wells subscribed to before what would come to be known as the Lynching at the Curve, was that the practice was the result of backlash following incidences of sexual violence from Black perpetrators against White women.
“And then she realized it had nothing to do with rape,” Brown said. “‘They are successful business people, and that’s driving you crazy’… She would go on to write articles, she interviewed people and she put out there the idea that this is part of White supremacist economic insecurities.”
In her autobiography, Wells describes writing an editorial in “Free Speech” three months after the Lynching at the Curve on how the “thread-bare lie” of Black sexual violence being the primary motivator of lynchings across the country is seldom even believed by the perpetrators of the lynchings, but instead are used as post-hoc justifications for an action taken to inflict pain and fear onto the relatively newly-emancipated population.
“The editorial furnished at last the excuse for doing what the White leaders of Memphis had long been wanting to do: put an end to the Free Speech,” Wells said. “On the following Monday morning the Commercial Appeal appeared… and called on the chivalrous white men of Memphis to do something to avenge this insult to the honor of their women.”
A mob would gather the next Monday, May 27, at a local cotton exchange center and, at the urging of leaders of the community, including the owner of the store which had competed with Wells’ friends, would go on to storm the “Free Speech,” destroying the printing press inside before burning down the building itself.
According to Brown, the lynching, which took the lives of her good friends, destroyed her place of work and could have taken her own life had she not been out on assignment. It would provide the impetus to begin a life of advocacy despite not being traditionally educated past an eighth-grade level.
“And that’s when she became a powerhouse. Within the next two years, she was traveling all over America and England, talking about the conditions of the South and talking about White supremacist control and domination over the Black community,” Brown said.
He said Wells would marry her husband, Ferdinand Lee Barnett, a fellow Black rights activist and lawyer who lived in Chicago, from where she would live and base her work for the remainder of her career.
It’s from Wells-Barnett’s home, now upheld as a national monument dedicated to her life and work, that she would travel across the U.S. documenting the violence and oppression inflicted against Blacks in prominent local papers like the Chicago Defender, The Conservator and personal publishings from herself and her husband.
“Wells was working as a sociologist, going from place to place in the field, collecting testimonies and drawing conclusions from it,” Brown said. “[She] used that material to make all sorts of arguments in the political and social spheres.”
Brown said Wells-Barnett’s work collecting the stories and experiences of blacks experiencing atrocities during and after events like the East St. Louis Pogrom in 1917, the Tulsa Massacre in 1921 and the many similar events which took place throughout the institutionalization of Jim Crow would inspire others like contemporary W.E.B. DuBois to develop what is now known as the field of Sociology.
“DuBois was known as the father of Sociology, but he, as a graduate student, came to visit her to learn about what she was doing,” Brown said. “She’s doing all of the field research we understand as sociology and cultural anthropology today, but we don’t give her any credit because, well, she was a journalist.”
Wells-Barnett would work with colleagues and fellow leaders in the Black community of the early 20th century, helping to create and personally founding a number of long-lived organizations which continue the work of advancing the equality of Blacks in the U.S., like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) before her death in 1931 at 68 years old.
Wells-Barnett’s work would take her to dangerous areas across the country, often bringing on threats of violence wherever she would go and even to her own home, but according to her daughter, Alfreda Duster, she was seen by many as to be determined by an almost religious zeal.
“The most remarkable thing about Ida B. Wells-Barnett is not that she fought lynching and other forms of barbarism,” she would write as the preface for her mother’s autobiography in 1970. “It is rather that she fought a lonely and almost single-handed fight with the single-mindedness of a crusader long before men or women of any race had entered the arena.”
The original autobiography contains a preface story told by Wells-Barnett in which she tells how a young girl compared her to Joan of Arc, a teenage French peasant girl in the early 15th Century who, seemingly led by divine guidance, fought battles against impossible odds to free her people from English domination.
Duster, citing this, said, though the comparison was more than a little strained, the efforts involved could be, in some ways, even more insurmountable.
“Joan had the advantage of rallying a generally sympathetic French people to a common patriotic cause. Ida Wells was not only opposed by Whites, but some of her own people were often hostile, impugning her motives,” Duster said. “Ida B. Wells was a Black woman born into slavery who began openly carrying her torch against lynching in the very South bent upon the degradation of the Blacks… and the measure of success she achieved goes far beyond the credit she has been given in the history of the country.”
Staff reporter William Box can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @William17455137. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.