Against All Odds

A new play and photo exhibition call attention to Ida B. Wells and her brave fight to end lynching in America

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One of her closest friends was Thomas Moss, who owned a grocery store in Memphis with two other black men. A white businessman, angered by competition from the new store, had pressured town officials to close it down. When a scuffle broke out between black and white youths near the black-owned store, he and other white residents threatened to destroy it. After a group of white men marching toward the store at night were fired upon and at least one was wounded, police rounded up and jailed more than a hundred blacks. But Moss and his two partners were “carried a mile north of the city limits and horribly shot to death,” Wells wrote in Free Speech. A local white newspaper reported Moss’ last words: “Tell my people to go West—there is no justice for them here.”

The murders devastated Wells, who was godmother to the Mosses’ daughter. “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,” she wrote in an editorial. Echoing Moss’ last words, Wells and other black leaders encouraged black Memphians to leave the city, which, she said “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.”

Thousands of blacks joined the “Exodusters” migrating to Oklahoma and other points west. Wells urged those who remained to boycott streetcars and white businesses. Railway officials, assuming that black passengers were staying away out of a mistaken belief that the electric cars were hazardous, pleaded with Wells to tell her followers the cars were safe. “Keep up the good work,” she told her readers.

Driven by anger and grief, Wells plunged into a wideranging investigation of lynching in America, documenting the circumstances of more than 700 incidents over the previous decade. She traveled alone across the South to the spots where lynching parties had shot, hanged and burned victims, taking sworn statements from witnesses, scrutinizing records and local newspaper accounts, sometimes hiring private investigators. She studied photographs of mutilated bodies hanging from tree limbs and of lynchers picking over the bones and ashes of burned corpses.

Her findings would astonish many Americans, appall others and outrage white supremacists. She aroused the strongest ire by venturing into the taboo realm of sexuality. The excuse frequently used for the lynching of black men was that they had raped white women. But her research showed that rape had never been alleged in two-thirds of the lynchings, and when it was, the “rape” was often alleged after a secret relationship was discovered or following nothing more than a suggestive look. In one editorial, Wells dared suggest that many of the white women had had consensual sex with the men.

Wells was en route to New York when white newspapers reprinted the editorial. Vandals ransacked the Free Speech offices, and fearing for his life, her coeditor fled the city. Racist whites promised to lynch Wells if she returned. A Memphis paper, the Evening Scimitar, threatened the editorial’s author, whom the paper believed to be a man. “Tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake . . . brand him on the forehead with a hot iron, and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.” Wells, who had armed herself with a pistol after Moss’ lynching, vowed to die fighting. “I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked,” she would later write. “If I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”

T. Thomas Fortune met with Wells during her trip and convinced her to remain in New York City. There she parlayed the subscription list of the now-defunct Free Speech into part-ownership of the New York Age, which published the findings of her investigations. She also published a pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynching in All Its Phases, for which renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass, then in his 70s, penned the preface. “Brave Woman!” he wrote, “If American conscience were only half alive . . . a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.”

Her crusade gaining momentum, Wells toured Great Britain in 1893 and 1894, speaking in packed churches and lecture halls. The “sweet-faced” orator spoke with “singular refinement, dignity and self-restraint,” wrote a London observer. “Nor have I ever met any agitator so cautious and unimpassioned in speech. But by this marvelous self-restraint itself, she moved us all the more profoundly.”

She so impressed the Duke of Argyll, Sir John Gorst, that he became the founding president of the London Anti- Lynching Committee, the first of many such chapters in Great Britain and the United States. The London membership included the archbishop of Canterbury, members of Parliament and the editors of England’s most prestigious papers. On a dare by Southern papers in the United States and to get at the truth about lynching in America, Sir John and his committee visited the United States in the summer of 1894. The mere presence of the British visitors, who threatened a boycott of U.S. goods, infuriated white Americans. Governor John Altgeld of Illinois said Southerners should retaliate by visiting Ireland “to stop the outrages there.”

As it happened, the British delegation was touring the States when a lynching party killed six black men near Memphis. “If Ida B. Wells had desired anything to substantiate the charges against the south,” noted an Ohio newspaper, “nothing more serviceable could have come to hand.” That incident marked a sort of turning point. Even the Evening Scimitar, which had called for lynching Wells herself two years before, now sounded contrite. “Everyone of us is touched with blood guiltiness in this matter,” the paper editorialized.


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