How the Murder of a Black Grocery Store Owner and His Colleagues Galvanized Ida B. Wells’ Anti-Lynching Crusade

The saga of People’s Grocery stands as a powerful reminder of the centrality of Black radicalism to the food justice movement

Ida B. Wells in front of a sign for People's Grocery
The 1892 People's Grocery murders are “what opened my eyes to what lynching really was,” Ida B. Wells later wrote. The MIT Press Reader

Coppery like a penny, thick like bad molasses, even a little gamey like a possum.

The white conductor’s blood in her mouth probably didn’t taste good, but it probably didn’t taste bad, either. Ida B. Wells sat firmly while the Memphis streetcar man gripped her body and tried to forcibly remove her from the first-class ladies car on a train from the Poplar Station to northern Shelby County in Tennessee. Wells—a prominent Black journalist and activist—took a bite out of the guy until he “bled freely,” he would later testify in court.

After the conductor successfully dragged Wells off the train, she sued the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad Company for failing to provide “separate but equal” accommodations for Black and white passengers. She won the case and received a $500 settlement, but the ruling was ultimately overturned by the state Supreme Court.

Journalist and activist Ida B. Wells
Journalist and activist Ida B. Wells Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Wells occupied that seat on September 15, 1883. Born about an hour southeast in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862, she’d lost her parents and young brother to the devastating 1878 yellow fever epidemic. Her parents were involved with Reconstruction-era politics and the democratization of education; their daughter would carry on that mantle as a radical teacher in her own right. She studied at the historically Black Shaw University (now Rust College), then took summer classes at Fisk University in Nashville and LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis.

The loss of both of her parents forced Wells to become the main caregiver for her five surviving siblings. The yellow fever epidemic ravaged the South, especially port cities and distribution hubs up and down the Mississippi Delta. The death toll reached more than 4,000 in New Orleans, 1,000 in the Vicksburg area and 5,000 in Memphis. Rich white people had the means to flee hotbeds of disease, but African American communities in larger cities were left to shelter in place. Black folks, however, would seize the means of survival in other ways.

Mutual aid came to life through disaster relief in Memphis. Black residents built networks of community care with a robust understanding of class struggle. The most vulnerable and most devastated by the epidemic were those without steady employment and without access to safe water sources, ventilation and functioning sewage systems.

Acquired Tastes: Stories About the Origins of Modern Food

This essay is excerpted from a book about how modern food helped make modern society between 1870 and 1930.

Benevolent associations and mutual aid societies, sometimes referred to as secret societies, had a long history in many antebellum Southern cities. Sometimes they were aligned with churches, and sometimes they weren’t. What united most was a commitment to shared resources, autonomous care and collective power. This took the form of financial assistance through death benefits, insurance, health care, and vittles for the poor and hungry.

Toward the end of the 1880s, strikes broke out across the United States, and disenfranchised laborers regrouped and reorganized labor and communities. There was an upswing in the formation of labor unions, alliances, and food and farm cooperatives nationwide during this period, with the unifying goal of fostering solidarity, land justice and economic power in new ways.

For example, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance amassed more than one million members by 1891. The cooperative union became a clearinghouse for organizations that preceded it, like the Colored Farmers’ Union, the Cooperative Workers of America and the Colored Agricultural Wheel. Some chapters had publishing wings; many led alternative academies in farming, offered debt relief and mortgage loan assistance, and created opportunities for cooperative exchange and distribution through the original food hubs. This was the new world of reorganized food provisioning and labor that shaped Wells’ Memphis.

When it came time to bring those farm products to market, the 19th-century grocer had control over transactions, with access to goods behind the counter mediated by the counter space that separated the buyer from the merchant. The grocer and counter clerks would take down orders in pencil on the back of the sacks, grind coffee beans, weigh out sugar and flour, and so on.

The only known photograph of People's Grocery
The only known photograph of People's Grocery Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t until 1916 that Piggly Wiggly opened at 79 Jefferson Avenue in Memphis. It was the first fully self-service grocery store and a precursor to the supermarkets of today. Until then, customers relied on an exchange with the grocer and clerks.

At the end of the 19th century, Memphis was fifth on the list of the biggest wholesale grocery markets in the U.S. The white grocer William Barrett operated what was at first the only grocery in Memphis’ Curve neighborhood. Barrett was taking advantage of the access deficit in the outskirts of the city. This is a glimpse into the early history of food apartheid, or what some policymakers call food deserts. In the words of writer and farmer Leah Penniman, the term food apartheid “makes clear that we have a human-created system of segregation that relegates certain groups to food opulence and prevents others from accessing life-giving nourishment.” The saga of People’s Grocery, a community-owned store that emerged as an alternative to Barrett’s in 1889, shows how entrenched the history of human-made food apartheid is.

In what seems to be the only existing photograph of People’s Grocery, a dark horse pulls a Van Buren Cigar wagon whose driver looks directly at the camera. Visible in the background is a storefront with three windows and a big sign with the store’s name emblazoned on it. People’s Grocery may have looked like Barrett’s store on the inside in some ways, but by virtue of its more cooperative structure, the store differed because it restructured food access and community, as well as the relationship between the grocer and customer.

A circa 1895 photo of Wells
A circa 1895 photo of Wells Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the working Black folks in the Curve and beyond contributed capital to collectively and cooperatively sustain People’s Grocery. Sociologist Zandria F. Robinson writes that the store was also a beloved “destination for Black people inside and outside the city.” Co-owned by a group of Black residents in the neighborhood, it was a financially successful food cooperative held in high regard by the Black community. Thomas Moss, a friend of Wells, was the store’s director. Black folks were building power by owning their labor, claiming space and documenting the terrors of white supremacy in the ever-expanding Bluff City sprawl.

Elite and working-class white Memphians alike invested in maintaining racial segregation through the changing neighborhood landscapes of the city in the 1890s. Historian Paula Giddings describes the racial geographies of the neighborhood as white communities began laying the groundwork for Jim Crow: “Whites were establishing racially exclusive areas within the city and abandoning outlying areas like the Curve to a large number of the poorer African American migrants, who joined the biracial working class already residing there.” These shifts in landscape also included attempts to maintain exclusive white ownership and control of spaces for food provisioning like the grocery store.

In 1889, People’s Grocery was the first Black-owned cooperative grocery in Shelby County’s 14th Civil District, on the then-outskirts of Memphis. On March 9, 1892, a white lynch mob instigated by Barrett killed Moss and two of his colleagues, accusing them of plotting a war against white citizens.

Panorama view of the razed Greenwood neighborhood
Panorama view of the razed Greenwood neighborhood, as seen a day or two after the 1921 Tulsa massacre Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The story of People’s Grocery is a foreboding of future actions of white supremacist terrorism against Black businesses in East St. Louis, Illinois; Elaine, Arkansas; Knoxville, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Houston, not to mention the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

Anxious white business owners in Memphis were growing increasingly threatened by Black community power. Black community control over land and autonomous food provisioning was revolutionary and thus a target for state violence. White city officials and landowners codified segregation through attempts to control not only the ballot box but also private and public spaces like grocery stores and curb markets. These same white boosters, property owners and police units relied on mob violence and the horrific public spectacles of lynching in their attempts to destroy Black power in Memphis.

Wells was 29 years old when the mob of white terrorists murdered her friends and destroyed the beloved People’s Grocery. “This,” Wells wrote, “is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was.”

How one journalist risked her life to hold murderers accountable - Christina Greer

While Wells was on a trip to the Northeast two months after the lynching, a local, white-run Memphis newspaper wrote a smear piece and stoked the fires of violent white terrorists who threatened her life and burned down her newspaper office on Beale Street. At the time, Wells was writing prolifically about People’s Grocery in her newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. She was shining a light on the targeted trauma inflicted by white vigilantes and the police as they tried to sustain a white knuckle-grip on the South.

Joining the 5,000 other Black people who used “their economic and political power as citizens, laborers and consumers to vote with their feet,” as sociologist Robinson describes it, Wells left Memphis. She chose exile. She mobilized.

For the rest of her days, Wells lived the life of an itinerant activist. She would build and transform vast networks of political education throughout the Southern diaspora and on an international scale. Wells traveled across the country and the globe to talk about white racial terrorism and municipal governance in all of its grasping fragility and bloodthirsty desperation. Core to her anti-lynching crusade was the evisceration of the rape myth, exploding the idea that lynching was always retribution for assaults on white Southern womanhood. It was the violence at People’s Grocery that had revealed these truths to Wells.

A historical marker commemorating Ida B. Wells' anti-lynching crusade
A historical marker commemorating Ida B. Wells' anti-lynching crusade Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

To understand the history of food justice is to understand the role that modern policing has played in establishing and maintaining the architecture of white supremacy, an architecture that structures oppression, some of which is centered in American food systems. In Memphis and beyond, Wells spurred uprisings that sought to dismantle these supremacies of racial capitalism.

Faron Levesque is a public historian, writer and host, currently based in New York and born and raised in Memphis. This article is excerpted from their essay “Eat the Rich: Radical Food Justice in Memphis and Chicago,” which appears in the volume Acquired Tastes: Stories About the Origins of Modern Food. Their newsletter, the Bottomfeeders Banquet, explores labor and working-class history, food justice, queer and trans revolt, and revolutionary learning.

This article originally appeared on the MIT Press Reader.

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