Ida B. Wells challenges the narrative of lynchings

Vintage sepia-toned photograph of Ida B. Wells, African-American journalist and activist. She is portrayed in a three-quarter profile, gazing to the side with a thoughtful expression. Her hair is styled in a neat, voluminous updo typical of the late 19th century. She wears a dark, lace-adorned blouse with a high collar, giving her a dignified and elegant appearance.
Ida B. Wells

“I am only a mouthpiece through which to tell the story of lynching and I have told it so often that I know it by heart. I do not have to embellish; it makes its own way.”

Ida B. Wells was out of town on March 5th, 1892. Her good friend Thomas Moss was not. He was working at the store he owned, People’s Grocery, with two other men. The men worked hard. The store was doing well. So well that People’s Grocery was taking away customers from a nearby store owned by a white man.

Frustrated, the white grocer picked fights with Thomas. And on March 5th, he and a group of armed men attacked People’s Grocery.

Thomas did as he had been advised to do. Because there was little police presence in this part of Memphis, he had been told to protect his property. So he did. He shot at the intruders.

Three men were shot that day. Those three men turned out to be deputies dressed in civilian clothes.

Thomas and his workers turned themselves in, thinking they could prove their innocence. They were just defending themselves as they saw it.

While the men sat in jail, a group of armed black citizens stood guard on the perimeter of the building to protect them from any potential harm.
They held guard for a few days until news came that the shot deputies would recover. People in the community relaxed, thinking there wouldn’t be trouble now. The men on patrol decided to stop guarding the jail.

On that first night without guard, a mob entered the jail, took Thomas and his workers, drove them out about a mile outside of town, and shot and killed them. Then the mob looted People’s Grocery, destroying anything they couldn’t steal or eat.

This was the first lynching in Memphis.

Ida was outraged. So she did what she knew best. She took to writing, where she could talk to the many people who, for years now, were following her columns.

She wrote, “There is 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.”

Many black citizens took her advice. Six thousand left Memphis.
But Ida wanted to delve further. She began to study the history of lynchings. She learned that the narrative of lynchings, the so-called justification of why lynchings took place, was because the man being lynched had committed the crime of rape. And thus “deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.”

In her words, “but Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Lee Stewart had been lynched in Memphis, one of the leading cities of the South, in which no lynching had taken place before, with just as much brutality as other victims of the mob; and they had committed no crime against white women. This is what 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 down.”

She found that most men who had been lynched had been accused of the rape of white women as a pretext for the lynching, accusations which were false in most cases. Which she then wrote about.

Then Ida left for a trip to the East coast. While she was gone, a group broke into her office and destroyed everything inside. The business manager of the Free Press fled. People who wanted retribution against her began monitoring her home and the trains, waiting for her to return. “If Ida Wells sets foot in Memphis again, she would be hanged in front of the courthouse,” they said.

Friends begged her not to return. Though a group of men had assembled to protect her if she chose to, everyone knew that lives would be lost if she returned. Ida, who had “plenty of nerve, and is as sharp as a steel trap,” as one person described her, decided to listen to the advice of her friends and not return.

“Because I saw the chance to be of more service to the cause by staying in New York than by returning to Memphis, I accepted their advice, took a position on the New York Age, and continued my fight against lynching and lynchers. They had destroyed my paper, in which every dollar I had in the world was invested. They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth. I felt that I owed it to myself and my race to tell the whole truth.”

“Ida B. Wells challenges the narrative of lynchings” sources:

  • Wells, Ida B.. Crusade for Justice, The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.


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