Note: This is the second part in a series of vignettes about the roots of post-Civil War institutionalized racism in the United States, focusing on the lives of two participants– Ida B. Wells in defense of African-American lives and rights, and ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman, one of the architects of Jim Crow.
Ida Wells received quite a bit of attention for her 1884 court case against the railroad, despite its eventual failure at the level of the Tennessee Supreme Court. In her memoirs, she noted a critical point– that as the first black plaintiff to have a case reach the level of the state supreme courts since the gutting of the Civil Rights Bills of 1875, she stood to set precedent. The crux of those 1883 decisions was that African-Americans were not wards of the Federal government first, but rather wards of their states; and thus would need to seek redress for harms in state courts– courts controlled by home rule and with many former Confederates re-exerting power with the close of Radical Reconstruction. Needless to say, the vast majority of these courts would not be particularly sympathetic to the cause of black Americans who only years earlier were held as their property in chattel slavery, and whom a number who’d have owned nary a single slave would still have blamed as scapegoats for the loss of brothers, fathers, and sons in the war. The loss of Wells’ case dampened similar effort– if Wells could get no satisfaction, why should any other African-Americans expect differently? And how many could afford to not only lose their case, but also some $200 in fees ($5100 in 2015 dollars) as did Wells? (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 1970, pp. 20).
The press given to her court case served as a springboard for the educated Wells to bring her story to the masses. First published in the Memphis Evening Star— a ‘spicy journal’, according to Wells (pp. 23), and in the weekly Baptist paper, the Living Way, Wells produced articles under the nom de plume ‘Iola’, targeting the black population. Offers began to roll in from around the country from other black newspapers, requesting that she editorialize for their publications as well. Wells used her articles to champion for desegregation in public accommodations, travel and in schools seventy years before the Civil Rights movement would catch up with her efforts.
Though of great use to the community, the black papers did not pay well, so Wells continued to support herself as a school teacher with stops in California, Kansas City, and back to Memphis in 1887. She did not enjoy California– the school was ill-attended, and aimed to educate Hispanic, Native American, and a few African-American students only what they needed to live in subservient positions, and that did not suit the forward-looking Wells. The stop in Missouri was equally abortive, with a kerfuffle centering around a local woman who was passed over– essentially twice– for the more experienced Wells causing Wells to leave for greener and more familiar pastures in Memphis, where she was assured a position, and without as much vitriol from local supporters.
In 1889, Wells’ profile afforded her the option to become a writer locally, for the Free Speech and Headlight in Memphis, which she accepted readily. Decrying the deplorable condition of the black schools in the paper in her usual outspoken way raised the ire of the town council, who summarily dismissed her from her position. Wells spent the summer of 1890 championing for the profile of the Free Speech throughout the Mississippi Valley, raising its readership, and making further contacts amongst black activists of her own. While on campaign she met with Isiah Montgomery– the only black member of the Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890, that established what remains today as the state constitution. That document served as one of the earlier supports for Jim Crow in the south, in this case establishing the ‘Understanding Clause’ that required black citizens to be able to explain and speak to any element of the US Constitution they would choose to read to them, Wells noting the framers had a particular interest in ex post facto law, which would prove to be a difficult passage for anyone. Meanwhile, the readers on voting day would take pains to ensure that white citizens had their pick of easy passages to relate their understanding of. An additional lever was the addition of poll taxes– if you could not pay, you could not vote. This disenfranchisement set the course for the continued subjugation of black citizens in the south. Unable to vote, they would be unable to influence laws that would target and further minoritize them, in an ever-accelerating downward spiral of oppression. (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 1970, pp. 38)
For her efforts, Wells became a partner in the Free Speech by 1891, and found herself regularly invited to her barnstorming tours to promote the paper (journalists could travel for free on the rail with press passes in those days), and to speak before gatherings of black activists where she was something of a novelty– a black speaker and newspaper editor; and female! The continued her tours through 1892 to great acclaim in the community.
While on one of her tours in Natchez Mississippi, tragedy struck in Memphis.
Three of Wells’ friends in Memphis operated ‘The People’s Grocery” in a neighborhood called ‘The Curve’ due to the streetcar line that made a sharp turn in that section of the suburb. Prior to the opening of shop by Thomas Moss (a local mail-carrier who Wells notes along with his wife were her best friends in town, and whose daughter Wells was godmother to), Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, there was a local monopoly controlled by a white grocer. The Curve was heavily African-American, and when given the option to shop at the white-owned business, or one owned by three black men, the majority chose the latter, damaging the finances of the white grocer. Still, the majority African-American population gave the three men a sense of security when facing the increasing ire of their competitor.
The fuse to the powder keg was lit innocuously in a game of marbles between groups of black and white children. The two groups got into a scuffle over the game, a conflict won by the African-American children. The father of one of the white boys took it on himself to seek revenge for his child, beating one of the black children. This was responded to by the father and friends of the black child attacked by a full-grown man, escalating the skirmish into a full-blown brawl, won by the black men. The white fathers immediately pressed charges against the black men, and a warrant was issued for their arrest. The case was heard, and was ‘dismissed with nominal fines’– but a group of the white community sought revenge yet again, now targeting the offending symbol of black strength in the Curve– the People’s Grocery. The white terrorists made it clear that they were coming “to clean out” the grocery that Saturday night.
McDowell, Stewart, and Moss, now drawn into this conflict, consulted with a lawyer who advised them that they were technically outside city limits, and thus ineligible for police protection; but that they could justifiably defend themselves. The three men armed themselves and positioned themselves to protect their business from the white mob. Around 10 PM that evening, they detected a small group of men attempting to sneak in the back door. They immediately opened fire and drove off the invaders, wounding three white men in the process.
When the white Memphis Daily Appeal was read on Sunday morning, it ran with text suggesting that policemen were dispatched to the People’s Grocery in order to apprehend criminals holed up there, and characterized the Grocery as “a low dive in which drinking and gambling were carried on: a resort of thieves and thugs” (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 1970, pp. 47-49). Suitably whipped to racially-based fears unfounded in reality, the white citizens of Memphis called for immediate action. More than a hundred black men, including the owners of the People’s Grocery, were rounded up and crammed into the Memphis jail, being watched over by mobs of white men who were allowed easy access to the jail at their leisure, presumably to at least jape and verbally abuse the men, perhaps worse. Wells speaks of the crowds gathering at every Memphis street corner to snarl about the horrors of black men injuring whites, something that a mind deeply ensconced in swirling thoughts of racial supremacy could not accept. Many of the black men of Memphis who had avoided arrest arrayed themselves outside the jail on Sunday and Monday night to forestall any further extra-legal attacks at their brethren, and the situation seemed to calm with the Tuesday Appeal suggesting that the white men were now out of danger and would recover from their gunshot wounds. The black jail watchers returned to their homes, believing the danger had passed.
It had not.
Tuesday evening, the Memphis police allowed a group of white men to remove Moss, McDowell, and Stewart from the jail, load them onto a switch engine on the rail line running behind the jail, and spirit them a mile outside of the town. Once there, Wells reports that Moss “begged for his life for the sake of his wife and child and unborn baby.” His pleas were disregarded. McDowell made a move to struggle with one of their assailants for his rifle. Unable to lever it away from McDowell, they fired it into his closed fist, blasting his palm to gore. Moss’ last words were reported by Wells as “Tell my people to go West – there is no justice for them here.”
The bodies of the three men were found the next day in a field, partially covered by loose brush. Moss and Stewart were beaten and shot, McDowell’s hand was missing fingers, and his eyes had been gouged out. As gatherings began to develop amongst the black community in the “Curve”—the area around the grocery—white authorities threatened to take another mob to meet them, and shoot any black men they saw on site, in the interest of preventing the men from “making trouble.” (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 1970, p. 50-51; The People’s Grocery… and Ida B. Wells, n.d.).
The white mobs took this as carte blanche to finish their work. En masse, they descended onto the People’s Grocery armed with rifles and pistols from the local hardware store and proceeded to loot the store, destroying anything they could not immediately consume or cart off. Unarmed, and warned off in fear of legalized killing by white authorities should they ‘make trouble’, the black community could only watch as the People’s Grocery was ended by the mob as surely as the owners had been the previous night.
Writing in the Free Press as soon as she returned from Natchez, Wells excoriated the town and its overt oppression of black citizens, and its official and unofficial acquiescence to the brutal murder of her friends; and those that would oppose white supremacy.
“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 is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left to 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.”
– Wells in the Free Speech and Headlight, March 1892
The People’s Grocery… and Ida B. Wells. (n.d.). Retrieved from Historic Memphis Online: http://historic-memphis.com/biographies/peoples-grocery/peoples-grocery.html
University of Chicago Library. (2009). Biographical Note. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from Guide to the Ida B . Wells Papers 1884-1976 : http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/scrc/findingaids/view.php?eadid=ICU.SPCL.IBWELLS&q=ida%20b%20wells#idp196081648
Wells, I. B. (1970). Crusade for Justice. (A. M. Duster, Ed.) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Wells, I. B. (1997). Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1920. (J. Jones Royster, Ed.) Boston: Bedford Books.