Ida B. Wells Portrait During Her Days in Memphis Around 1887
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By Abayomi Azikiwe
Between 1882 and the conclusion of the 1890s, the annual victims of lynchings grew at an exceedingly rapid rate. In 1892 and 1893, nearly 100 Africans were officially murdered as a result of mob violence. These figures do not include those who were murdered in the numerous one on one or small group disputes between blacks and whites which oftentimes resulted in the murders of African-Americans. These acts almost always went unpunished by the law-enforcement authorities in the South. As a result of the limitations of this study, a more comprehensive disclosure of racial mob violence directed against African-Americans between the period extending from the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1880s and 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930s, will not be possible. Future studies of a more extensive nature are required in order to properly quantify the enormity of state sanctioned race terror inflicted on African people during this period--violence that was aimed at the suppression of the political will of this domestically colonized oppressed nation. However, an examination of one of these acts of collective violence illustrates clearly the atmosphere prevalent during the 1880s and 1890s.
In the Yazoo Delta region of Mississippi in Leflore County, the massacre of 25 African-Americans in 1889 was representative of the white political response to attempts aimed at empowerment for the former slaves. Finnegan, in relationship to this tragedy states that:
"The outrages in Leflore County grew out of black farmers' attempts to overcome their 'peasant status'. Under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, a dynamic black organizer, the Colored Farmers' Alliance in Leflore County became a force for independence among delta blacks. Through personal contact and charismatic speeches, Cromwell convinced mainly African-American farmers to join the Alliance and to trade with a cooperative store some thirty miles south of Leflore County instead of with local white merchants, on whom blacks had traditionally relied for credit and supplies."
Mississippi Governor Robert Lowry sent in an all-white militia to ostensibly maintain order in the County. Prior to dispatching the troops, the Governor compelled them to "always uphold the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race." Finnegan described what happened after the Mississippi State Militia arrived in the County: "In apprehending some forty black Alliance leaders, the militia and white posses killed approximately twenty-five blacks, although white authorities never acknowledged the deaths".... Days after the initial massacre of the top leadership of the Alliance, white militia and posse members continued to search for other African-American leaders and lynched those who were suspected of being involved with Cromwell's group. Despite this mass killing of approximately 25 people, one year later two other African-Americanss were lynched in the same county-- one for the alleged offense of murdering a white merchant in an argument and the second man for involvement in a plot to avenge the first man's death.
It was not until the emergence of the campaign launched by Ida B. Wells during the early 1890s that there was widespread attention given to the genocidal wave of terror inflicted on African-Americans centered in the southern United States, but not necessarily limited to this region. Wells, who was born during the twilight of the slave system during the Civil War in 1862, was a native of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Known for its majority African populated counties in the Delta region, the State officials after the crusing of Reconstruction, maintained a fierce grip on the activities of the former slaves. Wells, whose parents had been slaves, studied at Shaw University and eventually became a primary school teacher in Mississippi as well as in Shelby County, Tennessee during later years.
However, during her early teenage years her family was struck by the yellow fever epidemic that swept the region in 1878. The outbreak was widely noticed initially in Memphis, fifty miles from Holly Springs, as thousands of people perished in the rapid spread of the dreaded sickness. Her parents died in the epidemic leaving Wells as head of the household at fourteen years old. After gaining employment as a teacher in a rural school, she maintained her younger brothers and sisters with the assistance of her grandmother and aunt. Soon Wells went to Memphis to live with the widow of her uncle who had also perished during the yellow fever epidemic. She eventually gained employment with the Shelby County school system where she taught in Woodstock, Tennessee.
It was during her tenure as a school teacher in Woodstock in 1884, that she became embroiled in a racial segregation suit after the young educator was forcibly removed from a ladies coach reserved for whites only onthe Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. After filing suit in the Circuit Court and winning a favorable judgement against the railroad company, the firm appealed to the State Supreme Court of Tennessee, having the lower court's decision overturned against Wells.
As a young school teacher in Memphis, Ida B. Wells participated in the social life of the educated African-American elites of the time period. She joined a lyceum in the city which met at the Vance Street Christian Church to read poetry, essays, recitations and to engage in debates on the contemporary issues of the times. After making an impression on her colleagues at the lyceum, she was asked to take over the editorship of their literary journal, the Evening Star. Attendance at the gatherings grew with people being attracted to the events in order to hear the Evening Star journal read to the participants. At a lyceum function, Reverend R.N. Countee of one of the prominent black baptist congregations in Memphis, requested that Wells write for the Living Ways, a news weekly published by his church.
Through her columns in the Living Way, Wells reached a broader audience among the African-American population in Memphis and the surrounding communities. In her autobiography Wells states that during this time period in the mid-1880s: "...I had observed and thought much about conditions as I had seen them inthe country schools and churches. I had an instinctive feeling that the people who had little or no school training should have something coming into their homes weekly which dealt with their problems in a simple, helpful way. So in weekly letters to the Living Way, I wrote in a plain common sense way on the things which concerned our people. Knowing that their education was limited, I never used a word of two syllables where one would serve the purpose. I signed these articles 'Iola'."
Her experience was enhanced when she took one-third control of a larger African-American weekly, the Free Speech and Headlight, in Memphis. Hundred of copies of the paper were sold every week through the Beale Street Baptist Church, the largest African-American congregation in the city. However, Wells outspoken criticism of the Shelby County school system lead to her dismissal as a teacher. She then became a full-time editor and promotional director for the Free Speech-- taking her throughout the region in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. She related in her above-mentioned autobiograhy that: "I went to most of the large towns throughout the Delta, across the Mississippi River into Arkansas and back into Tennessee. Wherever there was a gathering of the people, there I was in the midst of them, to solicit subscribers for the Free Press and to appoint a correspondent to send us weekly news. Wherever I went people received me cordially and gave me their warm support...A woman editor and correspondent was a novelty; besides, Mississippi was my native state."
It was during the course of building her career as a newspaper owner and editor that a murderous act of mob violence in Memphis would change the course of the life of Ida B. Wells. While away from Memphis on newspaper business in Natchez, Mississippi, word came to "Iola" on the lynchings of Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart who were friends of the Free Speech editor. The three men were proprietors of the People's Grocery Store located outside of Memphis in an area known as the "Curve". According to published newspaper reports of the period, the three African-American men had wounded three whites who had unlawfully entered the store in order to rob the owners. Jealously could have been a motivating factor because of the competition between the People's Grocery Store and white business owners located adjacent to the establishment.
After these men were arrested and placed in the Shelby County jail, the Tennessee Rifles, a black militia, went to their place of incarceration in order to guard against the possibility of a lynching. After watching the jail for three nights, the wounded white men in the initial shooting at the People's Grocery Store began to recover from their wounds. Subsequent accounts of this incident claims that the black men guarding the jail left thinking that the crisis had subsided. However, another resident of the city at the time stated in an interview some years later that: "The court...ordered the sheriff to take charge of the arms of the Tennessee Rifles, a Negro Guard, whose amory is near Hernando and Union streets."
In any event, a select group of white men admitted by the authorities inside the jail in order to remove Moss, McDowell and Stewart. They were then forced on to a switch engine rail car which ran in back of the County jail. The African men were then taken by train one mile north to the Memphis city limits and shot to death by the white mob. Press reports in the local papers indicated the Tome Moss had pleaded with the perpetrators to save his life for the sake of his wife and child. When asked for his last wods, Moss was reported to have said that his final message to African-Americans was to "tell my peole to go west-- there is no justice for them here." In the aftermath of the lynching, ajudge of the criminal court ordered the County Sheriff to carry one-hundred men to the location of the People's Grocery Store and to shoot on sight any African-Americans causing trouble at the location.
When a gang of armed white men reached the store, they immediately opened fire on a group of African-Americans congregated there to discuss the triple lynching of the business proprietors. Fortunately no one was killed in the attempted ambush, although the store was eventually looted and destroyed with the approval of the police, the courts and the white press. In an editorial written by Wells in the Free Speech she stated the following:
"The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order was rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left that we can do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons."
For several weeks following the triple lynching of Moss, McDowell and Stewart, hundreds of African-Americans fled the city of Memphis heading westward towards Oklahoma. Quickly disposing of their properties in the city, the people left were following the advice of the Free Speech and the last statement attributed to Thomas Moss. Two leading pastors in the African-American community, Reverend R.N. Countee and Reverend W.A. Brinkly transported their entire congregations westward. This exodous of people had noticeable impact on the business community which suffered a decline in demand for consumer goods and a shortage of cheap labor. The Free Speech newspaper was eventually approached by the superintendent and treasurer of the City Railway Company requesting that the publication use its influence to encourage Africans to again ride the streetcars to work and home. Of course these efforts failed along with other attempts by the white press to discourage African-Americans from moving westward.
While Ida B. Wells was away on a tour to promote her newspaper and to organize public opinion around the atrocities that were occuring in Memphis, the office of the Free Speech was ransacked and destroyed. These actions were taken after an editorial was published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper that incited white violence against Wells and the publication. Her business partner J.L. Fleming, escaped without harm from the premises before it was attacked by a white mob. Wells summed up her feelings at the time by stating that:
"Although I had been warned repeatedly by my own people that something would happen if I did not cease harping on the lynching of three months before. I had expected that happening to come when I was at home. I had bought a pistol the first thing after Tom Moss was lynched, because I expected some cowardly retaliation from the lynchers. I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit. But fate decided that the blow should fall when I was away, thus settling for me the question of whether I should go west or east."
Wells continued as a writer for the New York Age under the editorship of the well known activist, T. Thomas Fortune. She embarked on a speaking tour throughout the northeast region of the United States, where she later received an invitation to travel to England, Scotland and Wales in order to build support for an anti-lynching movement in North America. During her trip abroad in April and May of 1893, she was influenced by the involvement of British women in civic affairs. Upon returning to the United States, she played an instrumental role in building the African-American women's club movement named after here which created groups of female activists throughout the United States. After a second trip to England in 1894, she returned to settle in Chicago and publish the first serious study on the problem of racially motivated mob violence. This book was entitled, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894.
In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand Lee Barnett, founder of the Conservator, the first African-American newspaper in Chicago. Barnett was also a practicing attorney and political activists. Barnett was also a practicing attorney and political activists. Wells-Barnett continued her activism through involvement with the Afro-American League, the Negro Fellowship League and the Metropolitan Community Church in Chicago, where she was a Sunday School teacher for many years after 1920. She continued her research, writing and campaigning around the prevalence of lynching well into the 1920s.
Wells-Barnett died on March 21, 1931 in Chicago leaving a legacy of pioneering work related to the African struggle against racial violence and the acquisition of human and civil rights. In a tribute to Wells-Barnett her daughter wrote many years after her death that" "The most remarkable thing about Ida B. Wells-Barnett is not that she fought lynching and other forms of barbarism. It is rather that she fought a lonely single-handed fight, with the single-mindedness of a crusader, long before men or women of any race entered the arena; and the measure of success she achieved goes far beyond the credit she has been given in the history of the country."
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. This article was originally published as a section of a mongraph entitled: "Race Terror: African Resistance and Genocidal Violence, From Slavery to the Great Depression." This publication was issued during the Winter of 1998 in Pambana Journal that was published at the time by the Pan-African Research and Documentation Project at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.