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Est. April 5, 2002
June 21, 2018 - Issue 747

Ida B. Wells:
Injustice and Resistance

"'The more I studied the situation,' Ida B. writes, 'the
more I was convinced that the Southerner had never gotten
over his resentment that the Negro was no longer his plaything,
his servant, and his source of income.'"

Here the victim was tortured for fifty minutes

by red-hot iron brands thrust against his quivering body.

Commencing, at the feet the brands were placed against

him inch by inch until they were thrust against the

face...[in the end] curiosity seekers have carried

away already all that was left of the memorable event,

even to the pieces of charcoal.

Ida B. Wells,-Barnett, On Lynchings

One of the whitest landscapes, and it’s not in Norway or Sweden. I’ve come to realize that as long as I remained in this white conservative Christian town, I would be continually viewed by the natives as the wayward one—not themselves. It’ll be the start of the spring term already. Last summer, I’d been forced to remain in the office of a black affirmative action director for a couple of hours under the threat that I would loss the position I accepted but hadn’t signed the contract for—unless I cooperated and go back from whence I came. Just go! Disappear on my own accord!

I had been living in temporary housing for a year, despite having taught English composition and literature (granted, as an adjunct) at a few 4-year institutions and at every city college of Chicago campus, except one. Maybe if I had taught at Daley College in Cicero during the 1980s, I would have been familiar with the particular potent brand of racism practiced in the purple state of Wisconsin. And it was purple then in 2000 as it is now with 45 in office, only the “progressive” media, at the time, insisted (because their survival depended upon it) that Wisconsin was blue.

Blue or purple—what mattered was the overwhelming whiteness.

The English department was white, and the two blacks who took the bait both ended up leaving. So I was to go back from whence I came,--except that place was no longer home, and the Stanley Kowaskis now with academic credentials still excelled on detecting desperation.

So I became persona non grata.

Sometimes it’s not necessarily victorious to “stay in place.” I don’t mean it’s a mistake to remain in place. The atmosphere created in the absence of a rich diversity of races, genders, ethnicity and the inclusivity of the arts and music, is as toxic as swamp water and ultimately an unhealthy de-evolution of humanity. Even pro-slavery advocate Edgar Allan Poe acknowledged that the US’s obsession with an image of itself as whiteness had the potential to topple the nation from within. Because neither in or out of US borders is whiteness a reality in fact.

I had time in between the fall and spring break to determine the distance I had come, if any. My hair was cut very short. I would take a 45-minute train ride into Chicago at least once a month for a trim. I bought Ida B. Wells’ autobiography, Crusade for Justice while I was there. I might teach it, I thought. Why not? I knew bits and pieces of Ida B.’s story at the time. I knew that for her justice meant an ending to the lynching of black Americans. I was less aware of her rebel spirit, however.

Pictures of her showed a handsome woman, but a church lady I would pass on the street. Prim and proper, she is! Born in Chicago, I knew of the public housing complex named after her. I looked at the book’s cover, trying to imagine if the face with the Victorian-like hair style would suggest I just behavior and be grateful. Humble…

I know it’s not real, but there are real consequences if one disturbs the status quo. I’m reading Ida B., and when I’m not, when I’m cooking or cleaning, I’m recalling my black literature courses at Loyola University in Chicago when I introduced the students to the “maroons.” Our ancestors. The “dreaded ones.” It’s not a “hair style” but a notice to all about where you reside.

What am I doing in this so-white town?

Within the white landscapes are gardens, seemingly antithetical yet staid and stately. We have to start here, in the seemingly fantastical because whole families were enclosed within the borders of these gardens. And not just whites but blacks too. Blacks, part of the family, were part of the image too. Students thought I had invented the puzzling image. Something colorful within the whiteness. It wouldn’t have puzzled Ida B. Wells, born enslaved at birth, in Holly Springs, Mississippi. 1862.

The Lord and his Lady materializes in these gardens. The white-columned mansions at Westover (William Byrd) or at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson) can’t exist without these gardens. These gardens, in particular, their “gardeners,” cultivate an aspiring etiquette for a budding culture civility alongside industry.

Jefferson, while overlooking his garden one day, writes: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events; that it may become probably by supernatural interference!”

And later, Poe, again, creating images of clouds so black as to make the landscape shadowy and unfamiliar.

In film noir, someone has to take the fall. So when, the storyteller Rosa Coldfield in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! recalls for the next generation how the South was defeated in the Civil War, she has only to remember its end and her running toward the mansion and up the stairs and she’s crashed into a wall. She knocked into an awareness of the “debacle” that she had never fully seen before. She, all innocent, had come running when she heard the echo of the last shot fired. She had come to the mansion only to discover, atop those stairs, a woman with the absentee mansion’s master’s face and the face of the formerly enslaved. Freed and in the position of the mistress.

Mistress and free!

Had it all been nothing more than a fairy tale—and now this horror in its place?

Survivors on these war-ravished landscapes try to transcend it, writing narratives filled with loyal servants, Uncle Ramus, Sam, and Auntie Jane instead of the now unfaithful “gardeners.”

Nathan Bedford Forrest, troop leader of mass murders of Union troops, mostly which consisted of black soldiers, however, wasn’t buying it. He becomes the first Grand Wizard in 1867.

The deception is as real as the ensuing torture that is to be inflicted on the body of the newly “freed.”

The necessity of white landscapes…

Brutality,” Wells writes, “still continued; Negroes were whipped, scourged, exiled, shot and hung whenever and wherever it pleased the white man.” So to continue to be perceived as civilized people of the world, “the murderous invented” another “excuse—that Negroes had to be killed to avenge their assault upon women.” Only, as Ida B. writes, that excuse didn’t apply to the lynching of three men that occurred on March 9, 1892.

When Ida B. receives word of the events, she is out of town. Having raised her younger siblings after the death of her parents to Yellow Fever, she worked as a teacher before writing for several local papers. Now five years in as a staff writing and editor at Free Speech and Headlights in Memphis, Ida B. is often on the road, working a story. So she is when handed a telegram that read, “three men in Memphis...” Lynched!


This is still the immediate years after the end of the Civil War. Blacks are re-grouping. So are white Southerners. White storytellers and historians too. Nothing is on hold for anyone. But some look to move forward.

Wells would have been momentarily stunned because, as she writes, neither she, in another state, nor her fellow blacks back in Memphis would have expected to have witness a lynching let alone read that a lynching has occurred at home. There hadn’t been a lynching in the city since the Civil War, Ida B, recounts. The Civil Rights Bill by the United States Supreme Court in 1877 had been repealed. And if legal segregation is possible, the lynching is certainly possible. For what use to America are freed Black people?

Ida B. hurries back to her home in Memphis.

The three lynched are friends of Ida B. Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart.

Owned and operated by Moss, McDowell, and Stewart, the People’s Grocery Company was located in an area called the Curve, a “thickly populated colored suburb,” writes Ida B., with an already white-owned grocery store. For black residents of the Curve, it was a place of pride. A place were they would be treated respectfully, as human beings. Consequently, writes Ida B. everyone knew and loved these men. Moss was a husband and father, and she was godmother to the Moss’ daughter. She considered the couple her best friends.

Moss didn’t worry about “the white grocer’s hostility.” Why should there be white hostility from people who didn’t value (so they said) black lives? But it’s not a matter of black lives mattering but ironically “thief.” Profits that should be reflected on the white man’s ledger! Uppity Negroes were not only making a profit, but this venture symbolized for these blacks a move forward—equality!

Ida B. Wells can’t return home, but remains in New York, reads the fiction, but gathering the facts of what happened to her friends in Memphis.

It’s in the newspaper.

Not the truth but a narrative justifying torture and murder.

At night, in the town’s leading white newsroom, the white grocery store owner (William Barrett) along with the town’s white officials have gathered to give expression to their hatred for Negroes. Is it possible for whites to permit Negroes to arm themselves? An armed Negro population? Think of that! Negroes could shoot white men!

Sunday’s paper is plastered with “lurid headlines”: Law enforcers have been wounded “while in the discharge of their duties.” And the “duties”? The hunting of “criminals” at the People’s Grocery Company.

Wells discovered that according to the newspaper’s account of events, the People’s Grocery Store harbored criminals; it was nothing more, the paper insinuated, than “‘a low dive in which drinking and gambling,’” occurs. Nothing more, this People’s Grocery Store, than “‘a resort of thieves and thugs.’”

In the meantime, live went on at the store, according to Wells. By evening, McDowell and Moss, still present, the latter “posting his books,” hear shots ring out in the rear of the store where they’ve posted several black men with guns. White men arrive and attempt to enter the store, and, of course, they are stopped. In the process, three blacks are wounded while others flee. Those who do, sound the alarm.

The newspaper account points out the arrest of Moss and more a hundred black men, dragged from their homes and put in jail on suspicion, writes Ida B.

Eventually, law enforcement and its mob of white citizens, capture all three owners of the People’s Grocery Company and place them behind bars. Again, black members of the Tennessee Rifles stand guard for three night, until a court order permits the sheriff to confiscate the weapons.

Ida B.’s friends are defenseless.

They were loaded on a switch engine of the railroad which ran back of the jail, carried a mile north of the city limits, and horribly shot to death,” writes Wells. But the next day, the morning papers had the details. The Appeal-Avalanche Memphis headlines for March 10, 1892 read: “The Mob’s Work Done With Guns, Not Ropes: Three Rioters Shot to Death in An Open Field”. And the March 10, 1882, New York Times: “Negroes Lynched By A Mob: Ringleader of A Party Which Ambushed and Shot Your Deputy Sheriff...”.

A shocked black community gathered at the store to mourn those men they loved and lost. They needed to “vent their feelings,” Ida B. writes. But not to offer violence. Nonetheless, officials at city hall, notified that Blacks had gathered at the store, sent out an order, issued no less by the judge: “‘take a hundred men, go out to the Curve at once, and shoot down on sight any Negro who appears to be making trouble.’”

A peaceful gathering, blacks were fired upon. And a massacred didn’t occur that day, Wells explains, because the black men “realized their helplessness and submitted to outrages and insults for the sake of those depending upon them.”

The finally blow came when the mob entered the People’s Grocery Company, helped themselves, Ida B. writes, to “food and drinks,” before destroying whatever they didn’t consume or steal. Soon after, creditors closed the store, and stock were sold at auction.

In all, some 6,000 blacks left Memphis, writes Ida B. Six thousand to create white landscapes!

The two turned its attention to Ida B. She’s warned by blacks who fled—don’t come back home! Don’t! Whites are watching the train station! Watching your home!

In the meantime, leading citizens of the town march to the office of the Free Speech (Ida B.’s paper), chase the business manager, not just out of the office, but out of town, and then proceeds to destroy the type and furnishings in the office.

The good citizens left a note: Dear Ida B. your death is to follow if you should write and publicize what happened here! To support the whites, the newspaper justified the destruction of Free Speech. Do you know who was editor and writer for that newspaper? Ida B. Wells—a black woman! A black woman!

And Ida B.’s response: She buys a pistol! Expecting some “cowardly retaliation from the lynchers” once she makes known to the world what’s really happened at the People’s Grocery Store Company in Memphis, she armed herself. “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

Ida B. Wells was forced to remain in place! But, in New York, where she finds herself, she takes a position at the New York Age, and posts the first of her articles on the lynchings of black Americans. She writes of telling the world “for the first time the true story of Negro lynchings, which were becoming more numerous and horrible.”

They had destroyed my paper, in which every dollar I had in the world was invested.” I’m an exile. I’m dared to return home and threatened not to return home. But I will write. Her friends, Wells explains, committed no crime against white women. “This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down.’”

Wells writes that she started investigating every lynching that took place thereafter.

Ida B. begins Crusade for Justice in 1928. On March 21, 1931, after returning from shopping, she told others she wasn’t feeling well and took to her bed. Her condition only worsened over the next few days, writers Alfreda M. Barnett Duster, Ida B.’s daughter. Ida B. Wells dies on March 25, 1931 from Uremic poisoning, before completing the autobiography.

In her time and in her way, Ida B. Wells joined the ranks of the dreaded ones.

The more I studied the situation,” Ida B. writes, “the more I was convinced that the Southerner had never gotten over his resentment that the Negro was no longer his plaything, his servant, and his source of income.”

Alright, Ida B.!

One evening, during that first semester break, I decided not to take the train ride into Chicago. Instead, I sat on my living room floor with a mirror. I started twisting my hair until I looked into the mirror and saw my head full of little knots of hair. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.




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