That little-talked about tragic event which sparked Ida B. Wells’ tireless crusade against lynching

Mildred Europa Taylor October 12, 2022

Ida B. Wells is today one of the most accomplished figures in African-American history who became a champion of women’s and civil rights. A devoted journalist, a tragic event in 1892 would define Wells-Barnett’s career: The lynching of her friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart in Memphis.

Moss, McDowell and Stewart were initially arrested after they defended themselves when Moss’ grocery store was attacked. Besides owning a store, Moss was a postman who had made a name for himself in the Black community. A white person, also in the grocery business, felt that Moss had taken away his Black customers so he sought the help of some off-duty sheriffs to destroy Moss’ store in March of 1892. 

Moss and his friends, McDowell and Stewart, fought back. They had no idea that the men were deputies. Gunfire erupted and some of the deputies got injured. Moss and his two friends were arrested alongside some Black people who had come there to support them.

After some nights, Moss and his two friends were dragged from their cells by some masked men and taken to a deserted railroad yard, where they were shot to death. Wells was furious when she learned about the deaths of her friends and why police in Memphis were not doing much to arrest the culprits. She then urged her fellow Black men and women to protest by boycotting white-owned stores and public transportation.

The lynching of her friends inspired her to investigate other similar lynching cases. Wells launched an anti-lynching campaign. She later published her findings in a pamphlet titled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases.”

An excerpt from “Southern Horrors” reads:

Eight negroes lynched since last issue of the Free Speech one at Little Rock, Ark., last Saturday morning where the citizens broke(?) into the penitentiary and got their man; three near Anniston, Ala., one near New Orleans; and three at Clarksville, Ga., the last three for killing a white man, and five on the same old racket—the new alarm about raping white women. The same programme of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies was carried out to the letter.

Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.

Wells traveled for months alone in the south, researching and conducting interviews on approximately 700 lynchings from previous years. Her aim was to question the narrative at the time that said that Black men were lynched because they raped white women.

Her findings revealed that rape was never the case, instead, there had been a consensual interracial relationship. Wells realized that lynching was used as an excuse to do away with Black people who were acquiring property and wealth and to sow fear into them.

She published these findings in several editorials in the newspaper she co-owned and edited, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.

Born to enslaved parents in the town of Holly Springs on July 16, 1862, Wells first worked as a schoolteacher, attended Fisk University and wrote for Black-owned newspapers focusing on race issues.

She remains America’s most vocal leader against the heinous practice of lynching.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 12, 2022


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