Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells and "Lynch-Law"

Ida B. Wells Investigates Lynching

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The People's Grocery Lynching

In March of 1892, a white mob in Memphis, Tennessee lynched three black men--Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart--following an altercation at their grocery store, the People's Grocery. Moss and his family were close friends of Ida B. Wells. He and other prominent black residents owned the store, and it successfully competed with the white-owned grocery store across the street. The white grocer started the rumors and threats that caused the mob to target Moss.

In the aftermath of the murders, Wells began to investigate the circumstances surrounding other lynchings. Local newspapers often reported that mobs lynched black men because they had raped white women. But as Wells interviewed witnesses and victims' families, she found evidence that cast doubt on this explanation. Much more often, the allegation of rape only disguised another motive.

Sometimes, rumors of rape only started after an affair between a white woman and a black man was discovered. Not only were these relationships socially taboo, but in some states interracial sex and marriage were illegal. Other times--as in Moss's case--white anger and jealousy at black economic or political success provoked the lynch mob. Wells began to think of lynchings not as random expressions of mob hatred, but as a way for Southern whites to systematically use violence and fear to oppress black people.

After Wells reported on her findings in the Free Speech, the newspaper she co-owned, a white mob burned the newspaper's offices to the ground. Wells happened to be in New York at the time of the attack. Due to threats against her life, she never returned to Memphis. Instead, she embarked on an international career crusading against lynching.

Southern Horrors

In her pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch-Law in All Its Phases (1892), Wells presented some of the evidence she had collected to show that in cases when a lynching victim was accused of rape, there was often no credible evidence. The claim was often made to conceal a consensual sexual relationship, or disguise a motive entirely unrelated to sex or romance between black men and white women.

"The Black and White of It"

The two pages below describe several examples of affairs between white women and black men that Wells uncovered in her research.

"Their Silent Acquiescence"

In the page below, Wells reports that fewer than a third of lynching victims had even been charged with rape. She also explains why the charge of rape was so damaging: it made potential allies of black people unwilling to defend them.

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