How Ida B. Wells Campaigned to Expose the Lies Behind the Lynchings
Philip Dray on the Murder of Robert Lewis and Wells's Anti-Lynching Exposés
On June 2, 1892, Robert Lewis, a 28-year old Black resident of Port Jervis, NY, alleged to have sexually assaulted Lena McMahon, a young white woman who managed a sweets shop, was lynched by a white mob that fought off all efforts by police and officials to intervene. The incident, in a quiet, relatively prosperous town only 65 miles from New York City, was perceived by some as a worrisome sign the murderous lynching of Black Americans, then epidemic in the South, might spread to the North as well.
There were few people in America better able than Ida B. Wells to think critically about what had occurred in Port Jervis. The young African American journalist from Holly Springs, Mississippi, had, through her Memphis writings of the 1880s and early 1890s, established herself as one of the sharpest minds in the nation’s press. Yet she had learned the dark reality of lynching in the worst possible way—not as a reporter but through personal loss.
As recently as the fall of 1891, “like many another person who had read of lynching in the South,” Wells conceded, she “had accepted the idea . . . that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching, that perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow, and the mob was justified in taking his life.” This impression evaporated swiftly in March 1892, when her friend Thomas Moss and two of his Memphis business partners, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell, were arrested on trumped-up charges for repulsing an attack on the store they owned, the People’s Grocery, then stealthily taken from jail in the middle of the night and lynched. Their actual “crime” had been to operate a business that competed with one belonging to a white man.
Manufactured allegations of various kinds, Wells found upon further inquiry, were at the heart of many other lynchings, although a good number involved the most inflammatory charge, a sexual offense against a white woman. The latter could be relied on for purposes of incitement, so it was often included, no matter the original cause of complaint. And because whites viewed any intimacy between a Black man and a white woman as criminal sexual assault and refused to acknowledge the possibility the relationships were consensual, the likelihood of lethal consequences was ever present. By early May 1892, Wells had grown contemptuous enough of this hypocrisy to declare in the Free Speech and Headlight:
Nobody in this section believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.
Publishing such volatile words in the South in the early 1890s was beyond asking for trouble; it was suicidal. Wells, however, who stood no more than five feet tall, had never lacked for daring. Following the deaths of both her parents in a yellow fever epidemic in 1878, when she was sixteen, she had refused to hand her several younger siblings off to the care of relatives and instead assumed sole management as head of her family.
She taught at a one-room country schoolhouse in Mississippi, and later in Memphis, where she dabbled in literary and theatrical club life and contributed articles to local African American newspapers. Her early pieces dealt with household and women’s health issues, but she soon branched out, penning eloquent critiques of politics and the struggle for equal rights.
Of a decidedly activist bent, she once bit a conductor who tried to physically evict her from a first-class railroad car, and in a similar incident in 1884, she brought and won a lawsuit after she was driven from a “ladies’ car” and sent to the Jim Crow “smoking car” of a train. A DARKY DAMSEL OBTAINS A VERDICT FOR DAMAGES AGAINST THE CHESAPEAKE & OHIO RAILROAD: WHAT IT COSTS TO PUT A COLORED SCHOOL TEACHER IN A SMOKING CAR—VERDICT FOR $500, the Memphis Daily Appeal headlined its account. The award, however, was successfully appealed, the state supreme court ruling that her sole intent had been to harass the railroad.
In May 1892, when her incendiary words about white women and lynching ran in the Free Speech and Headlight, she was in New York City. In her absence the paper’s offices were vandalized, while the Memphis Scimitar, assuming the author of such a calumny to be a man, threatened “to brand [the editor] in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.”
T. Thomas Fortune, civil rights leader and editor of the New York Age, the country’s most influential Black newspaper, had long followed Wells’s Memphis writings and, aware that she could not safely return home, offered her work on the Age. In exchange for the subscription list of the Free Speech and Headlight, he and co-owner Jerome B. Peterson gave her a quarter interest in the Age and a salary to write weekly pieces about the South. “Having destroyed my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth, I felt that I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth now that I was where I could do so freely,” she vowed.
“Miss Ida B. Wells has added her vigorous pen to the pugnacious quill-quivers of the New York Age,” applauded the Detroit Plaindealer. “If those sneaking, cowardly, Negro-hating Memphis copperheads think they have gained anything by this arrangement, they are welcome to it.” Indeed, Wells lost no time in returning to her criticisms. In a June 25 article for the Age, she noted that “the miscegenation laws of the South only operate against the legitimate union of the races; they leave the white man free to seduce all the colored girls he can, but it is death to the colored man who yields to the force and advances of a similar attraction in white women.”
Her June 25 comments were part of a seven-column Age exposé titled “The Truth About Lynching,” in which Wells provided numerous dates and names involved in known lynchings and attacked the overworked reports that Black men were raping white women. Ten thousand copies of the issue were distributed, one thousand in Memphis alone, the first excerpts of what would become Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, Wells’s book debut and the country’s first incisive outline of the lynching plague. It showed convincingly “that lynching represented the very heart, the Rosetta Stone, of America’s troubled relationship with race,” notes one appraisal of the book’s publication, and helped establish Wells as a national figure.
The next month, Frederick Douglass, writing in the influential North American Review, lent the issue historical perspective, terming lynching by whites a response to Black people’s advance since Emancipation. “I have frequently been asked to explain this phase of our national problem,” he wrote. “I explain it on the same principle by which resistance to the course of a ship is created and increased in proportion to her speed. The resistance met by the negro is to me evidence that he is making progress.”
Despite Wells finding a home in New York, she learned that whites’ personal contempt for women of color was a Northern fact of life as much as a Southern one. Once, while commuting on the Fulton Street ferry, she was rudely shoved by a white man who cursed at her. She also discovered that the one thousand miles separating Memphis and New York City offered no guarantee of safety. Memphis whites had at last realized that it had been “that Wells wench” who had so cruelly libeled them, and the Black-owned Kansas City American Citizen reprinted their threat to “put a muzzle on that animal . . . We are onto her dirty sneaking tricks. If we get after her, we will make her wish her mother had changed her mind ten months before she was born. We have been to New York. Are we understood?”Wells was one of the first civil rights activists to understand that the hateful words of white people, especially pompous Southern officials and newspaper publishers, cited verbatim, worked as effective propaganda.
Such a violent threat against a Southern journalist in exile, let alone a female journalist, was unnerving, particularly as it evoked the mood of surveillance and terror that had characterized the fugitive slave era of the antebellum years, when white slave catchers infiltrated the North, often working with corrupt Northern police and judges to capture self-emancipated Black people and return them to slavery. While sympathetic to her plight, the American Citizen questioned the sagacity of Wells’s having humiliated white men in print in the pages of the Free Speech and Headlight. “Some medicine will not stay in the stomach when taken. Small doses, sugar-coated, would do better,” it advised. “God could have made the world and all in it in one minute. He chose to take six days, in order, if for nothing else, to teach the Negro patience, moderation and conservatism.”
Wells could not have disagreed more. She used strong words and had little patience for things half said, or for anyone who appeared willing to accept lynching as just the way things are. Her criticisms did not fall solely on the heads of lynching’s apologists but were at times directed at prominent progressives. Frances Willard, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and one of the country’s most revered reformers, was taken to task by Wells for excusing lynching as an unfortunate outcome of Black men’s weakness for drink, which Willard believed rendered them helpless to control their sexual urges; the result in the South, Willard had claimed, was that “the safety of women, of childhood, of home, is menaced in a thousand localities at this moment so that [white] men dare not go beyond the sight of their own roof-tree.”
For Wells the perfidy of alleged Northern allies was one thing; the violent threats of Southern racists, who in print called her a “wench” and a “saddle-colored Sapphira”—or, as in the case of the Memphis Scimitar, offered, were she to return, to strip her clothes off in some public place and whip her in the manner of a slave—quite another. Wells was one of the first civil rights activists to understand that the hateful words of white people, especially pompous Southern officials and newspaper publishers, cited verbatim, worked as effective propaganda, depreciating the offender’s voice as it highlighted the reasonableness of her own.
Her writings in the Age soon brought her to the attention of Victoria Earle Matthews, a Brooklyn journalist, and Maritcha Lyons, a teacher, who arranged a talk for Wells at Brooklyn’s Lyric Hall on October 5, 1892, with the aim of raising enough money for her to expand her anti-lynching work. Wells had taken elocution lessons as a young woman in Memphis, briefly entertaining thoughts of becoming an actress, but speaking before a packed house of prominent New York women reformers, as well as some who had traveled from Boston, made for an intimidating debut.
She became so overwhelmed sharing the story of the early loss of her parents, and the vitriol aimed at her for having placed herself at the head of a campaign to halt lynching, that she could not keep her emotions in check. She broke down and for several moments was unable to carry on with her address.
It is difficult today to contemplate the crisis of the human heart, mind, and spirit that lynching presented, in its sickening depravity and nauseating frequency: corpses found in the morning hanging from trees; spectacle “executions” attended by picnicking crowds; victims immolated and dismembered, their ears, fingers, and private parts sold as souvenirs; picture postcards made of such atrocities—all accomplished with complete disdain for the rule of law and often with passive or direct police collusion. Surely others shared Wells’s fear and concern, but for a considerable time it must have seemed that she alone had stared directly into the abyss and knew the magnitude of the crisis.
Wells had to signal to other women on the platform to bring her a handkerchief so that she could wipe the tears from her face and continue. “Respectability was among the highest goals of middle-class Black women after the degrading experiences of slavery,” the biographer Linda McMurry writes of the incident. “Without the backing of wealth and family, Wells had probably felt at times like an outsider in the elite social circles of Memphis.” The warm reception by the women gathered in Lyric Hall “was a precious gift at that point in her life.”
Wells returned the gift in kind. Regaining her composure, she blasted with a fiery eloquence the vindictive, unchangeable South, which, despite its loss in the Civil War, refused to reform and was instead taking the region backward in time, introducing strains of torture and violence as spectacle unseen since the days of the Roman Colosseum. With imagery that would echo in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address decades later, she called on her listeners to reawaken the great moral energies of the abolition movement, so as to
rouse this nation to a demand that from Greenland’s icy mountains to the coral reefs of the Southern seas, mob rule shall be put down and equal and exact justice be accorded to every citizen who finds a home within the borders of the land of the free and the home of the brave. Then no longer will our national anthem be sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, but every member of this great composite nation will be a living, harmonious illustration of the words, and all can honestly and gladly join in singing “My country! Tis of thee / Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing / Land where our fathers died / Land of the Pilgrim’s pride / From every mountain side / Freedom does ring.”
The event, described by the Washington Bee as “one of the finest testimonials ever [given for] an African-American,” raised $450, far surpassing expectations. No one was prouder than Frederick Douglass, who wrote in a preamble to Southern Horrors, “Brave woman! You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive… a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.” Douglass’s praise, it has been suggested, represented a kind of generational transfer of the Black struggle in America, from his lifelong battle for emancipation and equal rights to a young woman determined to secure an equally prodigious goal, an end to white terror and the bloodlust of the mob.
For an insightful account of Ida B. Wells’ emergence as an anti-lynching crusader, see Paula J. Giddings’ Ida: A Sword Among Lions (2008).
Adapted from A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded Age by Philip Dray. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Philip Dray. All rights reserved.